Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a self-declared environment buff. His government’s policy on environment, however, is as hazy as the toxic dust cloud which enveloped Delhi in the first half of June, trapping megajoules of heat until the streets sizzled. For a week, Delhi’s collective lungs sucked in more hot dust than oxygen.
There’s no doubting the NDA’s commitment to clean energy. Prime Minister Modi is the prime mover behind the International Solar Alliance (ISA), a 121-country pact on solar power generation. India’s solar energy target stands at an ambitious 100 GW by 2020, against the current total power generation capacity of 350 GW, of which only a fifth is from renewable sources.
What’s more, he has written two books on green development. In 2015, he knocked the socks off the international community with his speech at the Paris summit, by offering voluntary commitments on scaling down green house gas (GHG) emissions. When French President Emmanuel Macron — as green as the Hulk and just as tough — visited India earlier this year, the two signed off on an environment cooperation pact and reiterated their commitment to climate change goals.
Then there are the Prime Minister’s Ujala and Ujjwala missions. The first promotes energy-saving appliances like LEDs and has proved a thumping success. In a matter of three years, it has brought LED prices crashing down and resulted in big energy savings. All the more commendable, given that it’s a zero-subsidy effort, relying solely on market forces.
The Ujjwala scheme provides cooking gas to rural households, in an effort to reduce women’s exposure to household smoke and alleviate the need to forage for fuel. It is touted as environment-friendly, because it reduces dependence on forests, presumably by saving trees from being chopped up for firewood.
The threat to forests is not from rural housewives, however, but from the NDA government’s own development policies. Clean energy is all very well, but cleaning out forests is not. Green cover is a carbon sink, absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide which creates the greenhouse effect and triggers global warming.
At a conservative estimate, 40,000 trees will be axed for the 900-km Char Dham all-weather road connecting Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. Another 33,000 trees will be cut for the Shimla-Parwanoo highway and thousands more for other road projects in Himachal Pradesh. In the Kumaon Hills of Uttarakhand, too, at least 7,000 trees are being sacrificed to a highway. Deforestation has already impacted water sources in the hill states — witness the crisis in Shimla and Nainital this summer — and the current round of ‘development’ is bound to make it worse. Not to mention the increased risk of landslides and dumping of construction debris in rivers.
The PM’s pet project, the Bullet Train, will claim 77 hectares of forest land in Maharashtra, while 44,000 trees are marked for extermination to facilitate the widening of the Mumbai-Goa highway and another 8,300 for the Mumbai-Pune expressway. Against this backdrop, the NDA’s draft forest policy which envisions one-third of India under forest and tree cover, comes across as a bit of a stretch. It is an accepted maxim that tree plantations are not a substitute for natural forest cover, so the National Highway Authority’s claim that it is planting two trees for every one it cuts is specious.
A couple of kms from the PM’s residence on the capital’s Race Course Road, 16,500 trees are being cut down to upgrade housing for central government employees. South Delhi residents are understandably furious, as the severe dust storms which lashed North India this season underlined the need for more trees, not less.
Environment minister Harsh Vardhan recently said that India’s lands were rapidly being desertified, that is, converted to desert because of deforestation or intensive farming. He observed that 23 hectares of previously fertile soil was being lost to deserts every single minute. Already, more than two-thirds of India is dryland, of which a quarter is desertified. The National Capital Region is one of the most vulnerable.
So, while a Union minister deplores the desertification of the urban conurbation of Delhi, the Haryana state government is all set to review laws aimed at protecting the forests of the NCR. In fact, Haryana had moved the Supreme Court to de-notify thousands of acres categorised as “forest” and, thereby, legitimise encroachment. Granted, this was done under the Congress regime, but the BJP has made no attempt to change policy.
As a result of land hunger, the Aravalli forests, already decimated by big developers and illegal mining, are no longer a buffer against the desert sands inexorably drifting to the fertile plains. Forty per cent of Delhi’s green lung, the Ridge, has been lost to encroachment and the central government shows no interest in demarcating or protecting what remains. Development demands sacrifice. But so does preservation of hills, forests and rivers. The Char Dham yatra is a pilgrimage, after all, a spiritual journey. Do we really want a highway turning it into a picnic?
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.