No piecemeal solutions, please!

This artical originally appeared in Deccan Herald

The year 2022 is important. It not only marks the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, but it also marks the 50 years of institutional environmentalism in India. Coincidently, a week after we celebrated 25 years of Independence, the Lok Sabha Sabhapassed the Wildlife (Protection) Bill, 1972, making it the fi rst environmentallegislation in Independent India.

The sentiment for environmental protection is now ‘mainstreamed’

Moreover, in 1972, the National Committee for Environmental Planning and Coordination(NCEPC), the predecessor of the environment ministry, was also established. And it was in1972 that Indira Gandhi gave her famous speech at the United Nations Conference on theHuman Environment in Stockholm. A line in her address – poverty is the greatest polluter –became the leitmotif of a generation of environmentalists and continues to dominate theenvironmental discourse in the country. At this juncture, when we should be celebrating thegolden jubilee of institutional environmentalism alongside the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, itis important to look back and see where we are and in which direction we are moving.

To start with, we have made signifi cant progress on the environmental front, but we havealso had serious setbacks. I will list three notable successes and corresponding roadblocksthat typify the journey of the last 50 years.

First, the sentiment for environmental protection is now ‘mainstreamed’. Today everyoneagrees about the need to protect the environment and solve the climate crisis. But the intentis not translating into sustainable practices due to the lack of capacity, institutionalroadblocks and social inertia.

Second, we have developed a comprehensive legal and institutional framework to deal withevery aspect of the environment – forest, wildlife, pollution, waste management, andresource conservation. But there is a wide gap between the laws and their implementationdue to the top-down approach and weak institutions.

Third, we can take pride in the fact that we have been able to increase our forest cover andprotect wildlife to a large extent. However, the same cannot be said about the humanenvironment. Our cities, villages, farmlands, waterbodies, and airshed are all undertremendous stress due to growing population, ever-increasing consumption, and ashrinking natural resource endowment.

In the last 50 years, our population has increased by 2.5 times (by 80 crores) and GDP by 13.5times. On the other hand, our per capita arable land and freshwater resources have shrunkby 60%. Without fundamental changes in our production and consumption systems, thedegradation of land, air and water would continue, with severe consequences on health andthe economy.

In a nutshell, the experience of the past fi ve decades teaches us to avoid half-hearted effortsand piecemeal solutions. This is even more important today because our challenges are farmore complex and existential. We not only have to deal with traditional issues (land, waterand air) but also the climate crisis. Solving this dual challenge requires a new paradigm ofenvironmental governance. So let me propose a fi ve-point agenda for the same.

First, we must revamp existing laws and institutions and make them future-ready. All themajor environmental legislations were enacted in the 1970s and 1980s, and they need aserious relook in the light of the climate crisis.

Second, we need to build on our success in protecting the wilderness by increasingprotected areas by giving greater stake to the local communities. Currently, only about 5%of India is protected. This number needs to increase by protecting all ecosystems— forests,grasslands, oceans, rivers, and deserts.

Third, we should strengthen local government and promote bottom-up solutions.
Fourth, we have the opportunity to build the most advanced economy based on renewables, circular economy and nature-based solutions. This will create job, protect the environment and help mitigate the climate crisis.

Lastly, we need social movements for grassroots action. History shows that a massmovement is essential to achieve larger societal goals. We cannot meet the environmentalchallenges of the 21st century without individual responsibility and collective efforts.

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Chandra Bhushan is one of India’s foremost public policy experts and the founder-CEO of International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology (iFOREST).

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