At the time of writing this, the Air Quality Index across North America averages between 40-77 — the green-ticked ‘First World’. India is lit up on-screen with red flags — ‘Hazardous’, the labels warn. Delhi NCR is at 282 in RK Puram, 484 in Greater Noida and 619 in the industrial town of Mundka. Bandra, Mumbai, shows 248 —‘Very Unhealthy: Emergency conditions’.

Meanwhile, in coastal regions of Odisha and West Bengal, cyclones have increased at an alarming rate along with flooding and drought — displacing local populations and disrupting livelihoods. Climate change is not a drill and the next few years are crucial for arresting this descent — quite literally, in areas near rising sea-levels. Accordingly, on the international stage, India positions itself as a climate leader, setting ambitious targets for renewable energy. Closer home, however, the cracks in this image become apparent.

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At the end of January, Greenpeace India shuttered the doors to its Delhi and Patna offices, letting go of staff, many of whom had been with Greenpeace for the greater part of a decade. This came in the wake of months of struggling to pay salaries after a continued freeze on accounts by the Enforcement Directorate. A similar situation unfolded last December for Amnesty International India, which has been vocal against the excesses of the State, including the use of pellet guns in Kashmir.

The narrative is not new: the old bogey of foreign powers trying to thwart India’s ‘development’ dates back to the Dr Manmohan Singh-led UPA government. Since coming to power in 2014, the Narendra Modi-led NDA government has dialed this narrative up — cancelling the FCRA licenses of nearly 15,000 charities, weakening legal institutions, and creating the spectre of ‘urban naxals’ wherever it meets resistance.

Greenpeace has long advocated against aggressive clearances for coal plants and mining in natural forests — an unwelcome stance. Mousumi Dhar, interim executive director for Greenpeace India, says, “The Ministry of Power has been actively pushing back against implementation of emission standards for thermal power plants for years before being pulled up by the Supreme Court”.

But what’s the big deal with coal anyway?

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Reports show that coal-based power plants are the major source of air pollution in India with over 300 coal thermal power plants continuing to violate emission standards set by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEF&CC) back in 2015. Despite the urgent need for a time-bound plan, the recently released National Clean Air Programme “lacks teeth without any sectoral targets or legal bindings which would compel industries to change” says activist Sunil S Dahiya, author of the ‘Airpocalypse II’ report. On its part, the Centre dismissed the severity of findings on the impact of air-pollution on lifespan as ‘inconclusive’ — a confusing stance given that the Lancet report resulted from collaboration between experts from premier Indian institutions, including the Indian Council of Medical Research and AIIMS.

In this time of ‘alternative facts’, what is the government serious about? At Davos last year, Modi spoke about the need to stop being protectionist: “If you want wealth and wellness,” he said, “come to India”. The question is wealth and wellness for whom?

The portal eSuvidha provides an interesting indication of the government’s priorities. Here the Project Monitoring Group works with the MoEF&CC to expedite approvals and clear implementation bottlenecks for projects with an anticipated investment of Rs 1,000 crore — particularly forest-approvals. Several of the listed projects under processing involve coal.

What does all this efficiency involve?

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On the ground, it means that the Forest Rights Act, which protects pre-existing rights of forest-dwelling communities against displacement, has been diluted. This landmark legislation drafted in 2006 by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs promotes community management of forestland and resources through politically representative Gram Sabhas, whose consent is mandatory for forest governance.

Under the current government, the interpretation of consent has become…generous. With the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act of 2016 ‘consent’ changed to ‘consultation’ and as in the case of the Adani coal mine in Chattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand forest, operations can begin with Stage-1 approval where a proposal is agreed to in principal.

“It’s like moving into someone’s house and then saying — this is okay na?” says Aruna Chandrasekhar, a writer and researcher who has worked with indigenous people’s movements in the mineral-rich belts since 2011. We talk about the Koregaon Nine imprisoned for the alleged ‘plot to assassinate the Prime Minister’— Sudha Bharadwaj who fought for adivasi legal rights in Chhattisgarh, Mahesh Raut who managed to break bamboo traders’ lobbies. “They’re beating movements with a stick as an example to others,” she says.

“With laws being whittled down and institutions eroded, the next government is going to inherit this. What will the rest of India do to undo it?” she worries.

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An environment researcher who preferred to remain anonymous for reasons of safety elaborates on eroding compliance norms and intimidation. “Earlier there were proper assessments at least,” the researcher says. “Post the Niyamgiri judgement, Vedanta was supposed to clear out but now they’re trying different tactics to start a bauxite corridor there. People are already being randomly arrested.”

“It has affected the movement at large — for organisations, particularly if you’re working on mining issues, you can’t be as open. There’s a fear of getting your FRA license cancelled.”

"In Rajasthan, for instance the media won't call out certain mining companies by name. After what's happened with Sterlite, the companies are wary about mobilisation — so the women leading resistance are dealt with separately. Activists may be arrested. Also these companies run CSR projects in a few areas such as forming SHG groups with women; this allows them to establish a certain level of control over the women involved in these groups, so they're scared to come together and speak out about violations in their area. The other fear they have is that their husbands who work in the mines as labourers may be suspended from their jobs if they speak out. And since many mining areas don't have alternative livelihoods, it's extremely challenging for the community to then build mobilisation on ground," the researcher added.

On Firstpost — The anti-Sterlite protest of 22 May: A day of rage and death in Thoothukudi

Over at the Sterlite copper smelter in Thoothukudi, after the killings of 22 May 2018, one might have thought the government would ease off. Instead, there’s been “a near stranglehold on democracy and public expression” as per activist Nityanand Jayaraman. Meetings on Sterlite are not permitted, WhatsApp groups are monitored and as in Kudankulam, people live under threat of sedition cases.

The defense frequently presented by companies such as Vedanta in favour of their industrial projects is job-creation. However, analysis of the last three decades shows this kind of ‘development’ to be ‘jobless growth’ which destroys existing livelihoods, brings in migrant labour, and puts in place insecure and unsafe contract-work. As people on the ground have wised up to this, resistance has grown stronger.

“An alternative model of well-being is very possible,” insists Mousumi of Greenpeace. “One which puts ecology-based livelihoods in forestry, agriculture, fisheries, crafts, small-scale manufacturing and services as a core element”. Given that unemployment is at a 45-year high, perhaps the incoming government would be wise to take this seriously.

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At present, the reopening of the Sterlite factory has been ordered by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) which declared its closure ‘unsustainable’ despite evidence of environmental pollution. The Tamil Nadu government has challenged the jurisdiction of the NGT in this matter. Later this month, the Supreme Court will review the decision, having already noted that the matter does indeed fall under the NGT’s mandate.

Also coming up in the Supreme Court is a petition filed by NGO Vanashakti to declare Mumbai’s Aarey Milk Colony protected Forest Land against the construction of a Metro car-shed there. Three years after the petition was filed with the NGT, and after many proceedings, they were compelled to withdraw their case as the NGT suddenly said that it did not fall under their mandate. Director of Vanashakti Stalin D says, “The NGT played a cruel joke on us. After so long, you don’t reject a matter on preliminary objection grounds.”

Furthermore, despite being assured that a note would be made of the direction from the judge on seeking alternate remedies, the order on the website had no such mention. The MMRC in the meantime has gone ahead and cut down trees. Having dug into archival records, Stalin adds that it’s puzzling how despite an old Supreme Court order to define Aarey as forest, it was not done. Between 1969, when Aarey consisted of 2,076 hectares and was transferred to the State Forest Department, and today, where it has 1,280, “a substantial chunk of land was siphoned off”, he says.

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The conduct of the NGT is yet another troubling aspect in this thorough assault on environmental protections. Created in 2010 to address environmental issues in India through a judicial board with relevant expertise, it has expedited cases while rarely questioning decisions taken by the MoEF&CC. Since 2017, the Centre has increased its control over many aspects of the NGT. Today regional benches remain empty — requiring frequent, expensive travel to Delhi on the part of petitioners.

The Compensatory Afforestation levy would address the deforestation of Aarey by requiring funds to be directed towards planting trees elsewhere. This move, allowing easy clearances for land acquisition, and has been heavily critiqued for its shallow understanding of biodiversity. The resulting plantations often further infringe adivasi rights and tree-cover is not equivalent to a forest being lost. Sunil Dahiya tells me, “You can’t ask a leopard to go live in a plantation. If you let a forest area be, in 10 years it will rejuvenate itself. But then there’s no money in that”.

So here’s the situation: the government-corporate nexus is old news but today, the checks and balances on it are being destroyed. In the face of this undeclared emergency, perhaps India should proudly accept its membership in the Climate Change Denial Club.

Also read — The elephant in the room: A graphic narrative on coal mining in the Hasdeo forest

Then again, India is not just its government. I think about my conversation with Stalin D. “It’s a thankless battle. "Most of the older group in the Aarey Conservation Group got worn out," he said. "But their places have been taken up by youngsters who are taking the fight forward seriously."

A day later I come across Azadi Records’ new music video The Warli Revolt by hip-hop band Swadesi, featuring Prakash Bhoirji advocating for Aarey. And I think — you can’t kill dissent.

This correspondent reached out to Dr Harsh Vardhan (Union Minister for Science & Technology, Earth Sciences, Environment, Forests and Climate Change), Dr Mahesh Sharma (Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change) and Dr Ashutosh Sharma (Secretary, Department of Science and Technology) for comment. This article will be updated if they respond.

— Images 2, 5 and 6 in order of appearance in this post, courtesy Reuters

Riddhi Dastidar is a writer of poetry and non-fiction, and a Gender Studies scholar at Ambedkar University Delhi. She tweets @gaachburi

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