. Is India’s Environment, Forests and Climate Change policy on the right track?

. Why does the EIA 2020 draft appear anti-conservation?

. Can an out-of-box Green Stimulus be the vaccine in this Covid-19 era, to release animal spirits in the economy?

This World Tiger Day, one could safely say that The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has been riding on the tiger's back lately. Dangerously and somewhat recklessly.

This comes at the worst possible time, when the world is reeling from a pandemic that is allegedly a result of habitat loss and climate change. The novel Corona virus may have made an animal to human leap through an intermediary animal that may have suffered from loss of habitat or come into human contact through the wildlife trafficking circuit.

The controversies that the Ministry has faced are several.

Commercial monoculture plantations are not forests

India is showing modest increases in forest and tree cover, as reported in the India State of Forest report 2019. It is nearly 25% of the geographical area of the country, still well short of the targeted 33% by 2030. Hidden in these numbers are three anomalies. RFA or Recorded Forest Areas are also included

As an example, if a steel plant came up in the area which had previously been "Notified" as forest in the land records, the eliminated forest will still be counted because it is still in the records! Secondly, the inclusion of mass compensatory afforestation programs that are usually monoculture plantations including trees that are outside forest areas, masks the loss in biodiversity significantly lowering the "ecological service capacity" of these areas.

Such areas cannot perform the tasks of holding soil, retaining moisture, storing carbon or supporting wildlife the way good forests do. Thirdly, due to a higher resolution in satellite imagery, areas between 0.01 and 0.25 sq km are now picked up statistically thus leading to an artificial increase in numbers though these areas previously existed. The report does little to establish the causes for loss in forest cover and their social impact on the livelihoods of native communities that have lived on these lands since eternity.

Draft EIA2020 - a gateway to destruction?

An Environment Impact Assessment is a crucial report that characterises objectively the unintended impact that a proposed project will have on the ecology of the site with a plan to mitigate the negative consequences and boost the positive ones. It is a vital step for a governmental clearance to proceed with the project. If done with fairness, equity and transparency with the stakeholders (that include the affected people, often from marginalised sections of society), it can go a long way in making the projects sustainable.

The proposed draft has multiple shortcomings:

. It allows for post facto approvals making the act of making assessments and seeking clearances redundant

. It reduces public participation in the process by reducing the notice period for hearings and in fact does away with them in many categories of projects

. The impact assessment itself is done away with, in many categories of projects

. Projects are allowed to secure land for long durations without being accountable for any construction on those lands, increasing the risk of those projects eventually becoming "land-grabs"

. It allows for Centre to appoint State authorities to oversee this process, reducing local powers, thereby further curtailing the rights of local stakeholders to express their rights

Despite repeated citizen requests and a directive from the Karnataka High Court to make the draft “widely public” by publishing it in all regional languages and giving the citizens enough time to respond, the authorities seem to be dragging their feet.

-Is it surprising then, that citizens, reading this draft, are puzzled about its intentions?

-Is the draft making the case that "ecology and environment" are impediments to economic and social progress?

-What was the motive behind the draconian attempt to make a terror case on groups expressing their legitimate views and comments that the MoEFCC itself has sought on the draft law?

-And making their websites inaccessible to public? While the terror case was withdrawn, what message did concerned citizens receive? That they have no right to express their views?

Coal mining; Fossil Fuel - going back to the dinosaur era?

India recently announced the auction of 41mining blocks for commercial coal mining. Several of these blocks are in biodiversity rich forest areas of Central India that have significant forest cover and host a large number of scheduled tribes and backward communities, who depend on these lands for livelihood and their natural way of life. They further provide a host of ecological services including their water security.

It is further proposed to amend the relevant Mining laws to exclude from the definition of "illegal mining" those mining acts that are in violation of environment and forest clearance rules. During the Covid-19 lockdown, the MoEFCC has taken decisions to fast-track nearly 200 project proposals, with allegedly scant scrutiny and inspection. Another instance of making the EIA process redundant in the face of a pandemic.

Meanwhile a 2020 WWF report projects the loss to India's GDP of 1.5% by 2050, due to environmental degradation, following India's steep fall in the Yales's Environmental Performance Index.

US has announced the closure of 13 coal fired power plants, citing un-viability in the face of cheaper natural gas and renewable options.

In EU, renewable sources of power, for the first time, have overtaken fossil fuel generation, the former contributing 40% to the total electricity generated, with the latter at 34%, underscoring uncompetitive economics of coal power. The recent Bloomberg Green event emphasised that the pandemic has given fresh momentum to climate change and carbon reduction policies and highlighted that Clean Energy has crossed the threshold of economic viability over polluting fuels.

In a lecture organised by the Tsinghua University in China, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said emphatically, "There is no such thing as clean coal and coal should have no place in any national recovery plan. It is deeply concerning that new coal power plants are still being planned and financed, even though renewables offer 3 times more jobs, and are now cheaper than coal in most countries".

It's not surprising that as many as 30 blue chip US companies have written a letter to congressional leaders to include green energy in the next Covid-19 stimulus package, citing that efforts to put climate change initiatives on hold will have drastic consequences that that the renewables sector have the potential to create 3 times more jobs in comparison to the fossil fuel industry.

This very month, 27 leaders of the member EU states agreed, as part of an overall economic stimulus, a $630 billion package to fight climate change, consistent with goals on greenhouse gas emissions as agreed in the Paris Climate Change Agreement. In the face of all this green fuel activity across the world, is India showing sufficient intellectual and moral commitment to its goals and commitments on environment and climate change?

National Green Tribunal - a toothless tiger?

Is the body, that is supposed to stand at the vanguard of environmental justice, a spent force?

Allegations of "non tenured expert appointments", an overwhelming presence of bureaucrats as opposed to scientists, conservationists and professors persist, as do allegations of the virtual slowdown of processes at some regional NGT benches literally rendering them “non-functional".

Equally bizarre is the conflict of interest in the appointment of serving officers from the Indian Forest Service on the Expert Panel, where they will hear appeals against the decisions, they themselves may have taken!

The attempt to shift Goa cases from Pune bench to Delhi, supposedly to discourage activists in Goa, is also still fresh in memory. The Bombay High Court's Panjim Bench, in its ruling of Oct 2017, quoted John F Kennedy and James Baldwin on evidence and justice; pointing out how in this, a “time of apparently incessant strife and discord” in the country, Goa is a “kind and gentle land,” how its sunsets are “ridiculously brilliant” and why the “unprotected” are the ones who need the most protection.

At the heart of his 47-page judgment was the argument that “access to justice” was a facet of the fundamental right to life and personal liberty under Article 21. This must be brought back into renewed focus.

As this is being written, the World Bank, in its draft India Development Update has warned that the country is at the risk of reversing its hard won gains of the last decade in poverty alleviation and reduction of inequality. It has added, "Half of India's population was vulnerable with "consumption levels precariously close" to the poverty line. These households are likely to slip back into poverty due to income and job losses triggered by Covid-19”.

The draft noted while also emphasising the vulnerabilities of 90% of India's workforce in the informal sector, "These workers are at risk of falling into poverty due to wage and livelihood losses triggered by shrinking economic activity, government-imposed closures and social distancing protocols. Migrants face the deepest risks due to a static social protection system in India, inter-state migrants are at acute risk of increased poverty and destitution."

A Green Stimulus

India needs to look at a new Green Stimulus that aims at seeing Covid-19 as an opportunity to realise its Climate Action Goals while stimulating employment, economy and poverty alleviation. Its goals were a 3 billion tonnes carbon sink by 2030, a third of its geographical area under forest cover from the present 25%, reduction by a third - the emission intensity of its economy, and get to 40% of power capacity from renewables and non fossil sources.

The Green Stimulus could:

. Incentivise India Inc to take on big, hairy and ambitious goals on decarbonisation. Early in the year, Microsoft announced an ambitious target of going carbon negative by 2030 and to neutralise, by 2050, its historic carbon emissions since its founding in 1975. Many Mahindra and Tata group companies are already thinking along these lines and at the very least BSE 500 must be motivated to follow. The incentives could be through tax breaks

. Launch a Rs 20,000 crore Climate and Environment Innovation Fund to support and invest in development of carbon reduction, capture and removal technologies as well as "Eco-Healing" technologies. This fund should work like a Silicon Valley VC accelerator embedding the best talent and competing globally

. Take advantage of current low costs of renewables, aim for an ambitious 75% power capacity from renewable sources by 2030. Stop further new investments in fossil fuel capacity, coal mining, gradually trimming down subsidies and divert the funds and land banks to renewable power and domestic investments in solar panel manufacturing, reducing dependence on China

. Stimulate the village economy by empowering, resourcing and funding the Green India Mission with a Rs 500,000 crore budget and with international experts in the field of ecological restoration, water harvesting and water body rejuvenation, rural development, artificial intelligence, climate change, wildlife biology, marine conservation, etc.

. Start with a nationally organised Hackathon with a prize money of Rs 10 crore, inviting design proposals for "stimulating village economies in the post Covid-19 era, by gainfully employing migrant labour who have returned from urban areas, by focusing on restoring lost ecologies such as polluted waters, degraded streams and rivers, healing denuded landscapes surrounding polluting mines, power plants and factories, by creating conditions for an accelerated switch to natural farming methods, harnessing the abundant but slowly dying ancient, native knowledge of the soil, sun, water and seeds, re-greening arid desert-like areas towards fertility".

. There are plenty of examples to be inspired from. Alan Savory, an ecologist and livestock farmer from Africa and a Buckminster Fuller Challenge winner, has created prototypes of livestock farming systems that mimicked wild ones. Bill Mollison's global movement on Permaculture already has a cult following in India. Its practitioners integrate food crops, forestry, animal husbandry and wild plants into a close holistic association with the landscape.

Eco-mimetics is an emerging field that applies biomimicry concepts to agriculture, carbon sequestration and habitat restoration. John Todd, an Ecological Design expert and another Buckminster Fuller Challenge winner and Claire Janisch, a Biomimicry expert, in South Africa are using Eco-mimetics to redesign housing slums in the Western Cape with biologically inspired systems that manage water and waste, create soils and modify local climates.

The work of John Liu, an ecologist and film maker, in re-greening a large desert like region, Loess Plateau in China, is well known. Over two decades, a vast, barren region that stirred up dust and clouded the skies, was turned into a biologically rich and diverse ecosystem that supports livelihoods of millions of people. Similar experiments are being done in the barren Sinai Desert in Egypt.

There can be other collateral benefits from such a stimulus. Such as the possibility of achieving an "economic safe distance" from its larger, combative North-Eastern neighbour. Or the potential to integrate ongoing Agricultural Market reforms and the existing MNREGA machinery for implementation.

It needs a nation building vision, a realistic road map, unwavering commitment, commensurate large-hearted resources and the abundant global talent that is available.

It does not need slogans, charlatans and a policy machine that is perceived to be running rudderless - or as what Bob Dylan said in an iconic song "Like a rolling stone, with no direction home!"

Chandru Chawla is a senior leader in the corporate world and writes to keep his insanity.

Illustrated by Derek Monteiro, a laidback artist, poet and composer who dabbles in jazz to annoy and disperse pesky pigeons on his window sill.