Mumbai: Apart from COVID-19 and Atmanirbhar Bharat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech also touched upon environment and infrastructure while making a case for more projects. The statements came at a time when the government, despite strong opposition from citizens and activists alike, was moving to dilute the requirements to obtain green norms.

The proposed changes to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification--a document that assesses the impact of a project on the environment and suggests mitigation strategies--included a proposal to do away with public hearings for over 40 types of projects where local communities could voice their grievances.

The draft notification was released in March when India was under one of the world’s most stringent lockdowns to halt the spread of COVID-19. It allows for “post-facto” approvals, meaning a company could begin construction and seek approval later, which means environmental and/or ecological damage might be done by the time approval is sought.

The draft also has narrow definitions of eco-sensitive areas. It leaves out wetlands, coastal areas, etc.--all of which have important ecological roles highlighted in IndiaSpend’s Environment Undone series. The draft also allows for approvals for projects considered to be “strategically” important without defining what “strategic” refers to, leaving room for varied interpretation.

These proposed changes limit the involvement of locals most affected by a project, undervalue the environment, and allow violators to get away by chipping away the checks and balances that currently exist. We place the PM’s claims into context:

Focus on infra goes against promise made at the UN

Claim: “It is often said that during crises, the emphasis should be given on infrastructure so that economic activity is speeded up and people get employment and it generates a cascading effect. Both small and large enterprises, farmers and the middle class benefit to a great extent.”

Fact: India’s environment ministry is pushing to dilute the EIA notification that would make it easier for companies to operate despite local opposition. India approved 87% (2,256 of the 2,592) proposals that it received for environmental clearance between July 2014 and April 24, 2020, according to publicly available data on the ministry’s clearance monitoring website, Parivesh. The website does not show data for previous years.

In its series Environment Undone, IndiaSpend reported from Singrauli where a coal plant threatens the environment and wildlife. The reporting found that many of these projects are ill thought out and create little or no local jobs while doing considerable damage to the environment.

The spate of cleared projects goes against the promises Modi made to protect India’s environment while speaking at the United Nations last September.

Emphasis on road, railway and port connectivity a top-down approach, ignores local demands

Claim: “There is no coordination between the railways and the roadways, between the airport and the port, between the railway station and the bus station--this sort of situation is not desirable. We must ensure that the infrastructure is a comprehensive and an integrated one. It should be complementary to each other. The rail should be complementary to the road, the road to sea port and the sea port to the airport.”

Fact: Ongoing projects in India seek to create this transport infrastructure, but it is leading to ignoring local needs and demands. In Karwar, for instance, the port expansion done as part of the government’s Sagarmala project threatens local jobs, and the road expansion to join this port to industrial hubs cuts through a biodiversity hotspot in the Western Ghats and a tiger habitat, among other protected areas.

Coastline development needs to take changing climate realities into account

Claim: “While moving on with port-led development, in the coming days, we will focus on working towards building a modern state-of-the-art infrastructure towards the construction of four-lane roads across the entire coastline.”

Fact: India’s Sagarmala project seeks to create greater port capacity but has been found to have taken a top-down approach ignoring local realities. India is also set to bear the brunt of sea level rise in the next three decades, while several parts of the country’s over 7,500-km coastline are experiencing coastal erosion. Any new infrastructure along the country’s coastline will have to be climate resilient.

India has continued to make changes to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification 2019 even after it closed for public comments and the government has already disregarded over 90% objections to the changes.

In Mumbai, where a coastal road development project is already underway, such construction projects have recently been tested as climate change has increased cyclonic activity in the Arabian Sea.

No specifics or deadlines on pollution control

Claim: “We are working on a holistic approach to reduce pollution in the select 100 cities through an integrated approach and modern technology with people’s participation.”

Fact: In 2018, India was home to 18 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, according to a 2019 report by Greenpeace and IQ AirVisual, an online aggregator of real-time air quality information. To bring down air pollution, the government announced the National Clean Air Programme in 2019. But, as IndiaSpend reported earlier (here and here), the plan lacks legal mandate, does not have clear timelines and does not fix any accountability for failure.

Rising forest cover?

Claim: “India can say this proudly that it is one of the very few countries where its area under forests is expanding.”

Fact: Nearly a third of all the land in India classified as forest has been diverted for agriculture and mining. By including land that no longer has any forests, India inflates its forest cover, as IndiaSpend reported earlier. India also resorts to tree plantations to fight climate change but these plantations, legally considered on par with forests, do more harm than good, as IndiaSpend reported earlier.

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