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As 2014 wound to a close, the unusually warm December suddenly turned usually chilly and the high levels of pollution in the Indian capital New Delhi seemed to epitomise all that was wrong on the green front – erratic weather patterns seen elsewhere in the country through the year and a warning that the government must not dilute environmental safeguards in its haste to push industrial growth.

The prognosis for the environment was distinctly grim. Two events stood out in the disaster map of India – floods in Kashmir Valley and a cyclone that battered the eastern coast. Added to this environment-scape was India’s new Narendra Modi-led government, which had sailed to power in May promising growth and jobs, and spent its first few months removing hurdles like environmental clearances and mandatory approvals by village councils for diverting forest land. Yes, the government also initiated steps to clean the Ganga and indeed all of India but these were scant compensation.

Industry vs environment

It was an unequal battle with India Inc – which had been unhappy with the previous Congress-led government for stalling green clearances and helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) triumph in the electoral race. The scales were tilted in favour of industry as the government moved ahead on its growth agenda. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said soon after taking over that both growth and environment protection were possible and also promised “fast clearances” to infrastructure projects.

In his first 100 days in office, the minister reportedly cleared 240 of 325 projects awaiting clearance. The projects, in crucial sectors such as power, mining and coal, is expected to bring in investments of up to Rs.200,000 crore (US$32 billion) and help revive the economy.

These were some of the steps taken:

  • Irrigation projects requiring less than 2,000 hectares would no longer need green clearance while those requiring 2,000-10,000 hectares could be cleared by the state government and would not need the centre’s nod.
  • The Forest Rights Act was diluted to exclude local tribal communities and village councils, who earlier had to give their consent for diverting forest land for other purposes. Instead, the district administration was empowered to give the ‘green’ signal. The process had to be completed in 60 days.
  • Instead of the 10 kilometre limit specified by the Supreme Court, mid-sized potentially-polluting industries could operate within five kilometres of sanctuaries and national parks.
  • The government also revised the pollution index to enable new industries to be set up in critically polluted areas such as Vapi in Gujarat where any industrial growth had been banned earlier.

The roadmap for the months to come was laid out by a committee headed by former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian tasked in August with reviewing important environment laws such as the environment protection and the forest conservation acts.  In what is seen to be a major step towards fulfilling the Modi government’s aim to simplify green safeguards, the committee has recommended an umbrella law – the Environmental Laws (Management) Act (ELMA) – that will fast-track projects and also do away with organisations like the Central Pollution Control Board and state pollution control boards. Javadekar said the laws would be amended separately, though the set of amendments would be brought to parliament as a package, perhaps in the session scheduled to start next March.

If the government kept its promise to be industry friendly, it also announced an ambitious multimillion rupee plan to clean the Ganga, which is not just one of the country’s most important rivers but also the most revered. The National Mission on Clean Ganga (NMCG) was set up as the nodal body to coordinate the effort and reached out not just to other countries but also non-resident Indians to help in the funding.

While the mission has a lot of plans to improve water quality in the Ganga, nothing has been said about water flow, the lack of which is one of major reasons for the extensive pollution. Nor has the new government said anything about improving cooperation with neighbouring countries on transboundary rivers such as the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra.

However there was one statement about improving water flows that led to many raised eyebrows – Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road Transport, Highways and Shipping, has promised to revive the dead river Yamuna so people can sail from New Delhi to Agra.

One initiative that was widely welcomed was the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or the Clean India Campaign that was launched on October 2, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Undoubtedly a move much needed, it provided for plenty of photo ops for politicians and officials seen wielding a broom but is yet to pick up momentum.

Floods and cyclone

Four days of heavy rain was all it took for large swathes of the Kashmir Valley, including the summer capital Srinagar, to be submerged. The waters that came rushing in on September 7 and inundated the city killed 280 people, left thousands homeless and damaged property worth Rs.1 trillion (US$16 billion).  As allegations of rampant urbanisation and governmental negligence in reading the warning signs did the rounds, Kashmiris began the task of rebuilding their lives and preparing for another harsh winter. As the year ended, politicians of all parties flocked to their doorstep with state elections under way. But the question remained – would the next government be more responsive to the needs of the people and the land?

Cyclone Hudhud a month later killed about 25 people and displaced at least 400,000 people. For the people of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, who have frequently faced floods, this was nothing new. However, the accurate and timely forecast of the cyclone and its possible magnitude helped the state governments evacuate people in time and limit the casualties.

The latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies India as one of the countries highly vulnerable to climate change effects. The increasing frequency and severity of floods and storms in 2014 seemed to be bearing out that grim prognosis.

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