A country struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic is hit by a cyclone from the east and locusts from the west. Three months ago, such a scenario would have been rejected as implausible. But that is the reality of India now.

As temperatures cross 45 degrees Celsius in northern, western and central India, thousands of migrant workers are still trudging to reach their impoverished villages – victims of an unplanned lockdown whose ability to check the spread of the coronavirus is unproven. It may turn out to be the largest forced movement of people in history – the government told the Supreme Court there were 80 million people in its wayside quarantine centres, and many more are outside.

And in the middle of it the government is promoting the same sectors of the industry that have caused the multiple crises in the first place.

Drivers of disease

Aside from those invested in conspiracy theories, it seems clear that the Covid-19 virus jumped to humans from one or more animals to which we have become dangerously close because we keep cutting down forests and hunting them for their imaginary medicinal value. For years, experts have warned that habitat destruction fuels the emergence of zoonotic diseases, of which Covid-19 is one.

It is even clearer that Cyclone Amphan that decimated eastern India and southwestern Bangladesh on May 20 became a super cyclone because the temperature on the surface of the Bay of Bengal was at a record high due to climate change.

And it is just as clear that locusts are breeding in far larger numbers than usual in the Horn of Africa and southern Yemen due to repeated bouts of unseasonal rainfall, yet another effect of climate change. After decimating farmlands in large parts of eastern Africa, the Arabian peninsula, Iran and Pakistan, the swarms have already invaded three states in western and central India, in the greatest locust swarm in 26 years.

Fanning the flames

What is the rational response to these multiple disasters? Two courses of action are obvious. One, safeguard biodiversity by safeguarding forests. Two, move post-lockdown energy generation, transport and industry aggressively green, to minimise emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

The Indian government has done the opposite. During the lockdown, it has moved to seriously weaken all environment protection laws in the country on the pretext that these laws are holding up “development”. If the environment ministry gets its way – as it well may – a factory owner will not only have to do far less to control pollution, (s)he will also get to choose the inspector who checks if the weakened new law is being followed.

Since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that rules at the centre came to power, large tracts of forest have already been handed over to build dams and roads. In a detailed report, data news portal IndiaSpend counted 270 projects approved in and around India’s most protected areas since then. Now the government is allowing firms to drill oil wells and mine coal inside forests.

Black stimulus

As part of the post-lockdown economic stimulus, the government has allowed private players to explore for coal and mine it. India is planning to continue coal-based power generation despite solar plants – crucially including storage – now being cheaper. A detailed roadmap is available at the Global Renewables Outlook prepared by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), but no one in the government seems to be doing anything about it.

Jharia children collect coal from coalfields in Jharkhand [image: Alamy]

Praveer Sinha, CEO of Tata Power, says, “In today’s environment it would not be proper to talk of new coal capacity… There is not enough time for any new coal plant to run its full life and there is excess capacity now (with slower growth conditions). Any coal plant in early stage of construction should be revisited… The central government should ensure that states taking the economic stimulus package do not act biased against renewable energy projects.”

India is also planning more dams though most of the existing ones can be run only four hours a day at a profit, when the demand peaks. Most of these dams are in the Himalayas, inside forests, biodiversity hotspots and ecologically sensitive zones. Apart from what they will do to the area around them, they will affect water supply to all of northern, eastern and north-eastern India. And this when climate change is already making water supply more erratic.

Short-term thinking backfires

This type of short-term thinking – focussing on immediate profits rather than a robust and sustainable economy – is endemic in policymaking circles, and its negative consequences were revealed during India’s handling of the pandemic, most strikingly in the inability of the government to foresee that millions of migrant workers thrown out of work would try to move back to their villages despite the lockdown.

Other examples of lack of planning include the order to restart factories as one phase of lockdown gave way to another – hardly any time was given to check the state of machinery after being turned off for weeks. It resulted in multiple accidents on the very first day. At least 12 people were killed when the toxic chemical styrene – used to make plastics – leaked from a factory in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh and its vapours spread in nearby areas. The same day, a paper mill being restarted in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, caught fire. A boiler burst during restart at the NLC (formerly Neyveli Lignite Corporation) factory in Tamil Nadu, seriously injuring eight workers.

It was only then that India’s National Disaster Management Authority came up with a weeklong step-by-step approach to restarting factories. At the same time, governments in states controlled by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party – notably Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh as well as some controlled by the opposition like Rajasthan – suspended labour laws, although now some have been restored due to pressure from trade unions.

Also, as the lockdown moved from one phase to the next, two of India’s largest coal-fired power plants raised their generation from 52% to the maximum possible. And this while government-owned thermal power plants repeatedly tell the Supreme Court they do not have the money to install pollution control equipment, and keep getting the deadline pushed back again and again. In a remarkable display of chutzpah some have even blamed the pandemic for not following the guidelines, although they were supposed to do so last year.

It often feels that there is all-out assault on the very ecosystem on which the economy is based. But politicians and senior bureaucrats shrug in irritation in response to any suggestion that this is not the right approach. Don’t you see the millions of migrant workers who have lost their jobs, they retort, adding that they have to reopen factories and restart infrastructure and housing projects right now to enable millions to earn their livelihoods. They don’t even want to hear the phrase “green stimulus”.

Such talk by the policymakers is being cheered so loudly by industry bodies and a large number of think tanks that hardly any of the alternatives are heard outside small echo chambers.

New opportunities

But is the green stimulus as naïve as it is being made out to be, or is the current reopening policy so dangerously short-sighted that it will leave the country with stranded assets, polluted skies, undrinkable water and poisoned soils in less than ten years from now?

One fundamental problem in our current economic model is that governments do not take into account the health and environmental costs when approving plans or projects. On one hand, the Covid-19 pandemic is showing how dangerously myopic this is. On the other, just as one example, the IRENA report shows that low-carbon investment would save eight times more than costs when accounting for reduced health and environmental expenditures.

A new study led by Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz and leading climate economist Nicholas Stern found that spending on new green energy projects generates twice as many jobs for every dollar invested, compared with equivalent allocations to fossil fuel projects.

A group of firms working together as an Energy Transitions Commission has come up with a detailed roadmap of how to have a green post-lockdown stimulus. The main points are:

  • Unleash massive investment in renewable power systems;
  • Boost the construction sector via green buildings and green infrastructure;
  • Support the automotive sector while pursuing clean air;
  • Make the second wave of government support to businesses conditional to climate commitments;
  • Provide targeted support to innovative low-carbon activities;
  • Accelerate the transition of the fossil fuels industry;
  • Do not let carbon pricing and regulations spiral down.

There is no shortage of plans. G20 finance ministers – including that of India – have committed their countries to an “environmentally sustainable economic recovery” from the lockdowns forced by Covid-19. But there is hardly any sign of that in India’s stimulus package.

The change in the village

One of the biggest problems facing the government now is to find employment for the millions of migrant workers who have already reached their villages. It has fallen back on its default option, activities under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), but it needs to substantially increase the list of activities if it is to employ so many more people. The first option should be to really boost watershed development work, with the basic aims of improving soil fertility and underground water storage. There are lots of good examples available – the work at Bhojdari in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, coordinated by the Watershed Organisation Trust, comes to mind. This kind of work needs to be scaled up while adapting to local conditions.

India’s clean air days during the first phase of the lockdown resulted in much wonder but also many derisive comments about some people wanting to see the Himalayan peaks and go back to a pre-industrial age while many others starved because factories were closed. The comments derailed the argument that a post-industrial age is not just about mod-cons, but crucially about clean air, water and soil and about healthy people. That discussion needs to be brought back on track.

2 comments

  1. In ancient time the wisdom of the “idiots” was valued as the “idiots” were truly wise. In present times we have the “wisdom” of the idiots wherein there is no doubt to those who reflect who the true idiots are. Well-summarised article by Joydeep, hope it gets the attention with the planners.

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