India's Environmental 2016 Made it Very Difficult to Find a Silver Lining – But There's One

After years of being labelled as ‘obstructionist’, India has shown that it is also a part of positive climate action.

If 2016 has been the year of deaths of celebrities, the world of conservation was no exception. August saw the death of – and a state-sponsored funeral for – Ranthambhore tigress Machli, an exceptionally camera-friendly animal who created a singular, personalised narrative around her. Any wildlife-lover with a decent SLR camera would boast of going to Ranthambhore to photograph Machli. Getting a picture of her, or one of her many progeny, was considered a rite of passage. The bold tigress, not shy of people and documented to be fiercely protective of her cubs, has a Wikipedia and Facebook pages dedicated to her. Her death meant the end of a personal relationship many thought they had with her. It also brought into focus Ranthambhore’s oft-criticised practice of artificially feeding wild tigers and attending to them medically, part of the reason why 20-year old Machli was called the oldest tiger in the world.  

If 2016 lost a celebrity tiger, it was also the year where other individual tigers were made celebrities. Often, it was not just for photogenic value but also in raising real conservation dilemmas. Jai, known as Maharashtra’s largest tiger, was declared missing earlier in 2016. A huge search was organised. His disappearance raised the question of the safety of wild tigers and the operation of poaching rings. For nearly a year, news articles have been written about Jai, even as the Maharashtra government asked for a Central Bureau of Investigation probe to find out what really happened to him. Now, there are reports that Jai may be in Telangana.

If a tiger like Jai has indeed crossed state boundaries, then cooperation between states in protecting decent habitat and tackling poaching is paramount. And even as poaching is a solid threat, so is human interference. That was evidenced in the case of Ustad, the tiger from Ranthambhore, who was moved to a zoo from the tiger reserve after being charged with man-eating. A year on, Ustad is still in the
news, the subject of online petitions and physical demonstrations since. Many suggest Ustad was over-familiarised with people and tourists, and was not really a man-eater.

While tigers, and what humans are doing to tigers, dominated environmental headlines, a lesser known species came to squarely symbolise the development challenge that India is facing. The black-necked crane is a large crane found only in Asia. A small number visit India each year. Buddhists consider the bird to be a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and the bird is protected by them in Tawang valley. The area where the birds spend winter, in Nyamjang Chu river, is also the location of a proposed dam. Locals under the banner of ‘Save Mon Federation’ have been fighting for shifting the dam from the area. After a long protest, the group went to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) saying that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the project did not even mention the presence of the black-necked cranes.

The entire process was mostly outside of the mainstream gaze, until tragedy struck earlier this year. Lobsang Gyatso, one of the llamas protesting against the dam, was jailed. The locals were furious. Police firing ensued and two young men, just 21 and 31 years of age, were shot dead. The issue of dams being planned against the wishes of the locals in the northeast finally made national headlines.

But the real turning point came when, in a landmark judgment, the NGT suspended the environmental clearance to the 780-MW Nyamjang Chu Hydro project. The court held that the project developers never disclosed the site as one of the two in India where black-necked cranes wintered.

This is the first time in India that a project’s clearance has been suspended on the grounds of wildlife. It gives pause to reconsider large projects, which are steamrolled without local consent or proper environmental and social assessments. And pushing projects through without due procedure is an oft-repeated story.

In December, the Ministry of Water Resources declaredthe last hurdle for Ken-Betwa link is over” as the National Board for Wildlife has cleared the project. The Ken-Betwa river-linking is a multi-crore plan to artificially link the two rivers to provide water. The project has been criticised as being populist and ecologically unsound. But the press release from the ministry also revealed a negligence towards due process. While the Wildlife Board has cleared the project, two stages of forest clearance and environmental clearance still need to be obtained.

Meanwhile, at least one other NGT judgment may also change the growth-at-all-costs story. In the case of a hydropower project coming up in Kashang in Himachal Pradesh, the tribunal ruled that the Gram Sabha is the competent authority to decide if forest land should be diverted for the project. Reminiscent of the Niyamgiri judgement of the Supreme Court for Dongria Kond tribals in Odisha, the NGT held that the consent of tribals and forest dwellers is mandatory before forest land is diverted.

This was also the year when the government rolled out more privileges for industry and real estate as a policy prerogative. Under new relaxations, all constructions covering less than 150,000 sq. m are exempt from getting EIAs. Earlier, buildings of 20,000 sq. m and above (roughly the size of a mall or airport) needed EIAs. The purpose of this is to make construction easier, according to the government. Construction is one of the root causes of air pollution, another environmental issue that has been constantly talked about this year.

Environmentalists stress that constructions should not come at the cost of negligence while building. Pollution control norms state that construction debris and materials should be covered and properly disposed of. Yet hardly any action has been taken against violations. Whether air pollution will now be worse after Delhi’s “emergency” status in 2016 needs to be seen.

The year also witnessed the signing of a climate change agreement, the Paris Agreement. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the agreement lays emphasis on nationally determined actions by states, assumed to be the most acceptable way forward for developing nations like India. In a symbolic gesture, India ratified the agreement on October 2, Gandhi Jayanti.

This may be a silver lining 2016 is looking for. The metropolitan air is dirty, forests are shrinking and human-induced conflict with wildlife is on the rise. Around the world, however, the consensus that anthropogenic global warming is taking place is building. After years of being labelled as ‘obstructionist’, India has shown that it is also a part of positive climate action. How the country chooses to formulate and implement its environmental commitments will be the real challenge in the year ahead.

Neha Sinha is a Delhi-based conservationist.

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