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Environmental Impacts

posted by Madhav Gadgil

To address the important challenge of taking good care of India’s environment, we clearly need substantial, good quality, and reliable information. Unfortunately, this information is in very short supply. Most of the information pertaining to India’s environment is collected through the state machinery. A few agencies such as India Meteorological Department (IMD) discharge part of their responsibility competently, for example, properly recording temperature and rainfall data. In recent years IMD has also begun to share much of this information freely using the medium of the internet. Regretfully, IMD is an exception. Other Governmental agencies exhibit a number of shortcomings:

1.       Failure to maintain records: Some such as Department of Mines in Goa have utterly failed to maintain proper records of operational mines. Much sand mining and stone quarrying throughout the country is illegal and never brought on proper records. Similarly, Fisheries Departments and Pollution Control Boards maintain no records of major events like large scale fish mortalities. Even scientific organizations like the Indian Council of Agricultural Research have failed to maintain records of significant parameters such as changes in soil organic content of farmland, development of pesticide resistance amongst insect pests, and spread of introduced genes from GM crops.

2.       Very patchy, incomplete information: Rapidly plunging groundwater levels are a very significant issue. Very limited information is available on this score. Remarkably, information on ground water level for Goa is available for talukas not affected by mining, but completely lacking in talukas affected by mining.

3.       Suppression of accurate information: Pollution Control Boards are guilty in many cases of suppressing information on levels of pollution greatly exceeding permissible limits, e.g. in the case of Vashishti river in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra.

4.       Deliberately falsified information: Forestry establishment’s records of tiger populations are clearly exaggerated in many areas. On the other hand, it has been claiming falsely that there are no tigers in Goa. A large proportion of Environmental Impact Assessments, prepared not only by private agencies, but also by CSIR labs like NEERI carry deliberately falsified information on issues like impact of mining on hill streams.

5.       Failure to make information publicly available: Significant sources of important information such as the pollution related Zoning Atlas for Siting of Industries, or  land use related Regional Plan for Goa 2021  that ought to be made available to the public are kept under wraps.

6.       Failure to involve public in generating useful information: Three significant avenues for involving the public in generating useful environmental information, namely, preparation of ward-wise Environmental Status Reports by Local Bodies under the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution, preparation of People’s Biodiversity Registers by Local Bodies under Biological Diversity Act, and compilation of information generated through student projects under educational system-wide compulsory Environmental Education courses are being tapped very little.

7.       Active discouragement of involving public in generating useful information: Undue restrictions on public involvement in collection of useful environmental information are common, especially in lands under the control of Forestry establishment, which is country’s major landlord controlling nearly one-fourth of the land surface.

 

Evidently, the prevalent exclusionary culture of bureaucratic management of information pertinent to environmental issues cannot be maintained in the modern, open democratic society of India. We therefore need to transform the currently operational suffocating bureaucratic system into a transparent, participatory system. This may take the shape of a National Environment Monitoring Programme as proposed in the National Environment Policy of 2006. This policy calls for developing and operating an online, real time, publicly accessible environmental information system to provide all relevant information on key environmental resources and parameters, and making archival data available in convenient format. In this context, an important step will be compliance with the suo motu disclosure requirement of RTI of all the concerned agencies.

What we must now add to these proposals is that the information system should not only be publicly accessible, but be a participatory system involving all interested citizens on the pattern of the Waterwatch programme of the state of Victoria in Australia. It should be broad in scope and involve not only various Central and State Government agencies, but also all the Local Bodies and organizations such as industries and mines that are expected to document their pertinent activities.

India’s Biological Diversity Act 2002 that mandates the establishment of Biodiversity Management Committees in all local bodies, ranging from Gram Panchayats and Nagarpalikas to Taluk Panchayat Samitis and Zill Parishats provides an excellent platform for the involvement of the barefoot ecologists along with students and teachers; the mandatory Environmental Education projects are an ideal medium for the involvement of students and teachers. Indeed, we should aim to launch as a people’s movement making good information openly available on the manifold environmental concerns in India.

I have worked extensively on assessments of environmental impacts, both as a part of my scientific research, as also through work on official advisory committees. I have written on such issues in newspapers and other media. I will attempt through this website to share much of the resultant material.
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