In the quest for growth, don’t undermine the environment
On May 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a ₹20 lakh crore economic package to overcome the current distress and the devastating impact of the lockdown on individuals and businesses, encourage domestic industry, attract investments, and create what he called a “self-reliant India”. The PM also indicated that the government will undertake deeper structural reforms, across land, labour, and laws. To use this moment to reset Indian institutions and economy to ensure both prosperity and equity is, in principle, a laudable goal.
While undertaking the reform process, however, India’s fragile environment must not become a casualty. India’s development path shows that there is a good chance of this happening because successive governments have veered towards the view that stringent environment protection laws hamper economic development. This is a false binary. Speedy clearances of projects without proper regulatory and impact assessment may secure investments from the market and finances from banks in the short-term, but their long-term effects can scar the economy and people. Unfortunately, the ministry of environment, forest and climate change’s new draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), released in March, also seems to reflect the development versus environment outlook. The EIA is a process of evaluating the impact of a proposed project or development on ecology and humans. Instead of strengthening the process, the draft EIA, experts believe, is diluting the regulatory process for projects; sets severe limits to the quality of project appraisal; gives exemptions to more sectors from public hearing (where project-affected people can raise their concerns), and allows lenient monitoring and compliance protocols.
Undermining the environment will have an adverse effect on the economy, as well as the well-being of the people. This should have been starkly apparent, with the coronavirus pandemic attributed to human interferences such as deforestation, encroachment on animal habitats and biodiversity loss. The climate crisis, too, has led to enormous costs for communities, societies and States. Ultimately, lost ecological infrastructure and decline of natural capital, including human health, cause a decline in inclusive wealth. The impact of this is even more acute for countries such as India where achieving development goals such as reducing poverty and inequality is already a challenge. The Covid-19 crisis is a good opportunity for the Indian government to re-evaluate its priorities and opt for a greener development path. Reform, but respect nature.