World Environment Day 2021: A Duty of Care 

Amid the pandemic, there have been some significant developments that should concern environment lovers.

But first, the good news.

The battle for to save Mollem in Goa has been a hard fought one. The Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem Nature Park came under attack with the announcement of three linear projects – a double track railway line, an additional power grid and widening of roadways – that would have destroyed the pristine biodiversity of the Western Ghats.

A remarkable grassroots campaign saw students, teachers, lawyers, ecologists, wildlife scientists, artists, poets, musicians, journalists and just ordinary citizens and lovers of nature coming together on the streets and online, in a remarkably coordinated fashion to proclaim their dissent. These voices were found in poems, songs, dance, memes, films, investigative articles and petitions. More than two dozen scientists came together to do a “peer reviewed” cumulative Environment Impact Assessment of the three projects.

All this culminated in a petition before the Central Empowered Committee, the fact-finding body appointed by the Supreme Court. The Committee recommended changes in two projects with the requirement of Environmental Clearance and the scrapping of the third. The battle is not yet over, but what started on World Environment Day 2020 has certainly resulted in a model to emulate for green activists the world over.

The ‘Save Mollem’ learning must be applied to proposals that are underway to “develop” Lakshadweep islands and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The latter have thriving tropical rainforests, mangroves, coral reefs with multiple marine and terrestrial ecosystems interwoven with each other as well as notified and reserved areas for local tribes. All this sensitive balance of human, non-human life and cultures is at risk with the proposed development of a water aerodrome, a township and luxury resorts that will involve flattening a few thousand square meters of forest land and the felling of thousands of mature, indigenous trees.

The Lakshadweep “development” plans seek to not just convert the islands into a cluster of luxury resorts but also aim to  change indigenous people’s cultural habits. Beef is proposed to be banned in a culture where it has been the staple for generations. Alcohol is sought be de-prohibited in a majority Muslim community dominated geography. The administrator has also given himself unlimited discretionary powers to move people from their homes, to apply preventive detention laws at will, to de-notify ecologically sensitive areas at will and undermine tribal land ownership without consultations and to limit people with more than two children from being eligible to contest in local elections. There are other allegedly insidious plans to create a mining and cement hub in the archipelago.

Sadly, its Covid-free status has already been reversed and is reaching an alarming level. Saving the islands would need approaches like the ones deployed at Mollem – a coordinated coming together of civil society that uses the best of science, law, culture, people’s will and convictions to reverse these proposals and make them environment and people friendly.

Also read: Are Marine Plastics a Legal Breach or a Blindspot?

Recent judgements overseas are another a source of inspiration. A judgement in the Netherlands against Shell, the big Oil company, will compel the company to reduce its greenhouse emissions in line with expectations outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement. This is huge. This judgement sets an important precedent – it’s not only countries but also companies that will have to comply with the Paris agreement. Its useful to remember that the Paris Agreement obligations are not just about reducing greenhouse emissions, but also about increase in carbon sink through increase in trees and forest cover as well as about increase in use of renewables while limiting the use of fossil fuels. This Dutch judgment potentially opens many doors even in Indian environment related litigations against both companies and governments that environment defenders can use to their advantage, when they encounter projects that potentially violate the spirit of the obligations made in the Paris Agreement.

Two recent rulings, in Australia, adversely impacted mining companies including one of Indian origin (Adani). The interpretations of these agreements are profound. Firstly, the Minister of Environment owes the country’s children a ‘Duty of Care’ in ensuring that projects with serious climate change consequences do not bring harm to current and future generations.

Secondly, the concerned minister, when sanctioning use of large quantity of common resources (water, in the subject case), must employ rigorous scrutiny and due circumspection in weighing the pros and cons of long-term impact. This rule in Australia is referred to as the Water Trigger. These rulings reinforce the principle of intergenerational equity and its enforceability. They are also saying that countries must have strong laws, institutions and mechanisms to enforce environmental justice.

Also read: Lakshadweep: Tiny Dots on the Map for You, but Home for Me

Greenhouse emissions were also the reason for shareholder activism in companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron, putting pressure on them to change their business ways to “cleaner energy forms”. An executive order in the US will also compel banks and institutional investors to disclose their climate risks in their statutory filings. As capital is global in nature, it will have ramifications in India too. Banks supporting “climate risky” projects will have a tough time from its own investors, particularly the large global and sovereign ones, producing a natural pressure to migrate towards “clean projects”.

World Environment Day is the world’s annual day to pledge commitment to preserve the planet for future generations. This year’s theme is ‘Reimagine, Recreate, Restore’. Here are few suggestions, based on this theme, for the Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change:

  1. Please reimagine the Environment Impact Assessment Policy. It must work in the interests of the Environment and the human and non-human communities that inhabit it. It must work to support development while preserving ecologies and habitats. It must encourage the use of contemporary science and must be biased towards evidence.
  2. Please recreate the plans for ecologically sensitive areas like Mollem, Lakshadweep, Andaman, Nicobar, Aarey, Aravalli, with one clear theme – to leave them alone
  3. Please restore the sanctity and autonomy of our institutions and their processes that are there to administer environmental justice

Jane Goodall said this recently, “We’ve got to stop thinking that business as usual can carry on, because it can’t. Business as usual says there can be unlimited economic development. But the planet has finite natural resources.”

We must respect that. For we have a Duty of Care.

Chandru Chawla has a normal day time job and writes at night to keep his insanity intact.

Derek Monteiro is a laidback artist, poet and composer, who dabbles in jazz when bored.