UN’s Green Award for Modi Comes Despite Criticism of Environmental Record

Asked about the contradictory actions of UN agencies, staffers say UN bodies may not necessarily coordinate and in some cases even be aware of each other’s work.

New York: Narendra Modi this week became the fourth South Asian leader to be given the UN’s highest environmental award when the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) named the Indian prime minister and French President Emmanuel Macron as joint ‘Champions of the Earth’ in the policy leadership category. The other Indian awardee was Kochi International Airport, in the entrepreneurial vision category.

Previous winners since the awards were instituted in 2005 include King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan (2005), President Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldives (2010) and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh (2015).

Modi and Macron were awarded for “championing the International Solar Alliance and promoting new areas of levels of cooperation on environmental action, including Macron’s work on the Global Pact for the Environment and Modi’s unprecedented pledge to eliminate all single-use plastic in India by 2022.”

Controversial record

While the PMO has been quick to celebrate the award, environmentalists in India said there was a gap between the international perception of the Modi’s commitment to the environment and the policies of his government on the ground.

This week, for example, the country’s only Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary on the Ganges at Varanasi has been denotified on questionable grounds – the first dismantling of a wildlife reserve since India’s landmark wildlife law was passed in 1972. As the noted environmental writer Bahar Dutt has argued, the denotification is believed to be prompted by the desire to dredge the banks of the river so as to allow it to be used as an inland waterway for the transport of coal to serve new thermal powerplants.

Location of the Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary, Varanasi. Credit: WII

The Centre for Science and Environment has drawn up a catalogue of Modi’s policies which does not make for flattering reading, even on the issue of plastic – the specific subject for which Modi is now being called a ‘champion of the earth’.

According to CSE, the attack on the environment began from day one:

“In its first year of governance between August 2014 and April 2015, the Prime Minister’s Office under Modi considered and implemented “a list of 60 urgent action points submitted by the Confederation of Indian Industry, meant to remove hurdles of environment clearances for industry.” 

Since then, what the CSE calls the “Modi government’s ‘dilution spree’ of laws pertaining to India’s forests, coasts, wildlife, air and waste” has continued. This includes:

India also ranks 177 of 180 countries in the Environmental Performance Index 2018 rankings, down from 141 in 2016.

Modi and the UN

The UNEP award to Modi comes weeks after a UN report on 39 countries highlighted the fact that environmental activists are among those who have been subject to reprisals by the Indian government. The report names countries who intimidate activists who cooperate with and assist the UN in its human rights work.

The report mentions intimidation of the Centre for Social Development, which works on the land and resource rights of indigenous people, for using foreign contributions to highlight uranium mining in Meghalaya at global platforms.

The special rapporteurs of the Human Rights Council have in recent reports  to the OHCHR noted the protests against the Sterlite copper smelting plant, the displacement of people caused by the Sardar Sarovar dam and the arrest of environmental activists.

When asked about the process of nomination for Modi and Macron, UNEP head Eric Solheim told this reporter: “We have a process that we go through to judge who we believe are the right nominees. In the past we have awarded individuals like the former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Rwandan President Paul Kagame who showed political leadership in environment issues. The UNEP is awarding Modi and Macron for taking the lead on the International Solar Alliance. France has also initiated a global pact for environment, which is a process within the UN to negotiate an instrument for protection of the climate. Macron has a strong environmental record and so does Modi.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with French president Emmanuel Macron. Credit: Reuters

According to Solheim, Modi could also count the electrification of villages and the Swachh Bharat campaign as a success. Ironically, the UN special rapporteur on drinking water and sanitation, Leo Heller, who visited India last year, said after his visit: “Eliminating open defecation is not only about building latrines, but requires adequate methods for behaviour change, and sufficient water supply is a pre-requisite for the sustainable and safe use of adequate, low-cost latrines.” He added that the programme “should not involuntarily contribute to violating fundamental rights of others, such as those specific caste-affected groups engaged in manual scavenging, or those who are marginalised such as ethnic minorities and people living in remote rural areas… “.

With regard to the contradictory actions of United Nations agencies, UN staff who did not want to be quoted, said that UN agencies are spread across the world and may not necessarily coordinate and in some cases even be aware of each other’s work.

Environmentalists react

Reacting to the award to Modi, environmental researcher Kanchi Kohli said, “There is a deep irony in India being considered a Champion of the Earth, with the prime minister as the awardee. This comes at a time when the country is dealing with an acute crisis of water and air quality, severe groundwater stress and land use conflicts, all of which impact lives and livelihoods of people. Several environmental laws have already been diluted or are in the process of being amended citing ease of doing business as official reasons. The decisions related to the ban of single use plastic or expansion of renewables should not be viewed in isolation of several other decisions that are marred with environment justice concerns.” 

Ashish Kothari, researcher and activist with Kalpavriksh Pune added: “While the Congress regime was bad enough with regard to environment, the BJP’s stint is worse, in terms of dilution of environmental laws and procedures, the pace of clearance to ‘development’ projects and the push for major infrastructure in ecologically fragile areas, home to tribal communities.”

According to Kothari, an ambitious solar programme is welcome, but will make no difference, without the reduction of fossil fuels and nuclear power. “Large scale solar production implies issues of land grabbing, where the access of the poor may be as problematic as for other sources. The ban on single use plastic is welcome, but is a small part of a much bigger problem, which is the mass production of solid waste. India is reeling under a massive waste crisis and piecemeal solutions will not help much. There needs to be a move away from a development model that is only fixated on consumption-driven economic growth.”

Selection process

In a written response, UNEP said that the policy leadership award category is about inspiring future action for our planet, not a wholesale endorsement of the recipient’s agenda. “In jointly recognising Prime Minister Modi and President Macron, we are spotlighting the spirit of cooperative leadership and bold environmental initiative which we hope to see taken up by other world leaders.”

On the selection process, it said: “Champions are selected from hundreds of global nominees submitted during an annual public nominating process. Once submitted, a team of independently dedicated Champions of the Earth staff located in UN Environment headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, research and prepare detailed profiles of each candidate, their achievements and qualifications. Those profiles are then reviewed by UN Environment’s senior management team located in regional offices around the world. After an open comment period and further vetting, by a selection of senior UN staff the three-month process concludes with final selections made by UN Environment’s Executive Director.”

Urvashi Sarkar is an independent journalist.