Of the Classes of Environmental Regulation, Grasslands Are Poorest of the Poor

The Government of India has used the prompt to deal with climate change as an invitation to blindly plant more trees at the expense of grasslands.

Gujarat and Rajasthan are covered in a vast, dry expanse of grass and thorny scrub. This unforgiving environment, which spans the edge of the Rann right up to Rajasthan’s border with Pakistan, is crucial to an entire ecosystem that includes several wild species, many of which are disappearing. These include indigenous wolves, foxes, chinkara, blackbucks, the long-eared caracal, the critically endangered great Indian bustard and the endangered lesser florican.

Grasslands in all their forms – there are reportedly 11 types in India alone – occupy 25% of India by area and provide 50% of the fodder to the country’s 500 million livestock.

But in spite of how critical they are to grazing communities and for wild species, grasslands have languished in the blindspot of Indian environmental regulation, and are now being threatened by it. The blinkered focus of environmental conservation on climate change runs the risk of drowning out other concerns, and in some cases actually exacerbates them. Some of the more well-funded strategies to combat climate change, like aggressive afforestation and a focus on green energy, pose serious risks to biodiversity and as a result to the environment as a whole. This is particularly true for grasslands.

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Regulators equate increasing green cover with environmental conservation. This is to be expected given the colonial roots of forest administration in India and its focus on harvesting commercially lucrative timber for the colonial state. However, afforestation continues to dominate the conversation seven decades after independence, leading to a host of problems.

For example, under the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, forest land can be diverted for development projects only if the Government of India approves it, and the project’s proponents have to compensate for the loss of forests by raising a forest or paying another agency – usually the forest department – to maintain a forest. The result is usually monoculture plantations of non-indigenous, commercial species such as eucalyptus, acacia and teak, all of which are counted as forests but shouldn’t be.

One phase of environment law is defined by an anti-pollution agenda and since the 1990s, it has pivoted to combat deforestation and tackle climate change. However, through these phases, officials have consistently classified grasslands as ‘wastelands’ and ‘degraded lands’ that are in need of ‘conservation’, and best diverted to ‘productive uses’ like afforestation and industrial development. Right from the National Forest Policy of 1988 to the draft National Forest Policy of 2018, grasslands find no mention in the government’s agenda. To date, no government policy exists to regulate grasslands.

A report of the erstwhile Planning Commission released over a decade ago revealed this bias in environmental conservation strategies for the “lands without godfathers”:

Grasslands are not managed as an ecosystem in their own right by the Forest Department whose interest lies mainly in trees, not by the Agriculture Department who are interested in agriculture crops, nor the Veterinary Department who are concerned with livestock, but not the grass on which the livestock depends. Grasslands are the ‘common’ lands of the community and while there have been robust traditional institutions ensuring their sustainable management in the past, today due to take-over by government or breakdown of traditional institutions they are the responsibility of none. They are the most productive ecosystems in the Indian Subcontinent, but they belong to all, are controlled by none, and they have no godfathers. Indeed they are often looked at as ‘wastelands’ on which tree plantations have to be done, or which can be easily diverted for other uses.

A retired IAS officer recently filed a petition in the Supreme Court alerting the judiciary to this prejudice and its dangers. The officer wants to protect the last living members of two endemic grassland species: the great Indian bustard and the lesser florican. Both birds have been protected under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, for over two decades and both birds suffered a decline of over 80%. Today, only 100-150 great Indian bustards and fewer than 700 lesser floricans survive.

One of the greatest challenges these birds face is the loss of their habitat. The anthropocentric and exclusive idea of green growth means that the Centre has rooted for rapid afforestation and green energy projects, such as windmills and solar power plants – projects that have proved fatal for the bustards, whose eyes evolved to navigate rolling grasslands, not objects right in front of them. Many of these birds have died after head-on collisions with power lines.

In spite of these consequences, officials continue to see grasslands only through the limiting lens of climate change, while their inhabitants and those who rely on them have been completely sidelined. The government’s Green India Mission, launched in 2014, aims to double the area under afforestation and targets grasslands as the primary locations for this task, describing them as “highly degraded ecosystems.”

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In January 2018, the Union environment ministry set up a high-level committee to study ways to increase India’s green cover. It recommended that, to achieve the proposed green cover target of one-third of the total geographical area, ‘wastelands’ would have to be leased to the corporate sector. At the recently concluded 14th Conference of Parties under the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that these targets had been increased to 26 million hectares. But not all that is green is good.

The looming climate crisis poses an unprecedented existential threat with far-reaching impact across continents, landscapes and species. So it is only fair that the world’s attention is defined by a focus on tackling this crisis. However, that doesn’t mean governments can run roughshod over biodiversity. The climate crisis is a historical problem, rooted in a fossil-fuel-based capitalist system, and it can’t be overcome by focusing solely on green industries and re-greening. The response to the climate crisis must protect natural habitats and the ecosystems that depend on them.

India’s extensive geographical boundaries and ever-growing population mean that its choices impact the future of the world. India is one of the most populous countries, with increasing carbon emissions, as well as an international biodiversity capital: it hosts 7-8% of the world’s recorded species. Its government is responsible not just to India’s as well as the world’s citizens but also to the numerous lifeforms that call India home.

Ria Singh Sawhney is an advocate and researcher, specialising in digital rights, environmental and human rights law. Sugandha Yadav is an advocate practicing at the Supreme Court, also specialising in environment and human rights law.