India@100, environment
Critical indicators of performance reveal weak and uncoordinated institutional efforts to address environmental degradation and protect rights of natural resource dependent communities. Representational image

Toward 2047: Nehru’s caution on rapid growth matters for ecology

India's first PM had been concerned about the 'disease of gigantism'; as we take up mega development projects with little thought for the ecology, the prognosis is worrisome

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To predict the state of India’s environment in 25 years, when the country turns 100, is not as easy a task as looking up at the sky and dreaming of glorious possibilities. It demands rational verification of choices made in building the country over the past three generations, and then carefully evaluating the impact of these choices on the generations to come.

About the choices being made in the first 25 years of the Republic, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had the honesty to admit, while speaking in 1959 to engineers at a meeting of the Central Board of Irrigation and Power, that he was worried India has been afflicted by the “disease of gigantism”, as he put it.

Also read: CAG flags gross violations of environmental norms at Ramsar sites

He went on to elaborate: “We have to realise that we can meet our problems much more rapidly and efficiently by taking up a large number of small schemes, especially when the time involved in a small scheme is much less and the results obtained are rapid.  Further, in those small schemes you can get a good deal of what is called public cooperation and, therefore, there is much social value in associating people with such small schemes…”

Nehru’s cautionary note

In those days of honest politics, the office of the Prime Minister was eagerly open to criticism; in fact, it invited as well, the howling protests that followed from engineers, who argued they built the mega projects politicians imagined. These howls were not in the least greeted with reprimand of any sort. 

However, Nehru’s cautionary note appears to have fallen by the wayside, especially his call for deeply democratic decision-making in imagining and the building of public projects of a reasonable scale.

In fact, building mega projects became the default mode, be it in urbanisation, industrialisation, and agriculture, over the next quarter century. And, this trend has intensified over the past 25 years, when India’s economy was unleashed from the sluggish ‘Hindu rate of growth’ with liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation of India’s economy.  This reform also marked a fundamental shift away from reliance on sovereign and financially viable factors that broadly framed India’s post-Independence developmental choices.

Vast changes

The past quarter century has witnessed unprecedented transformations of land use and extraction of natural resources. Massive tracts of farmland and common lands have been converted to industrial, urban and infrastructure development, and extraction of oil, coal, iron ore and other mineral resources has increased substantially. And, given that these resources are largely found in forested areas, it has caused extensive devastation and disenfranchisement of adivasis and other natural resource-dependent communities.

Coastal areas are pockmarked with irreversible transformations with ports coming up everywhere, and fishing villages, coastal commons and estuaries squeezed out by tourism and related infrastructure developments. Massive financial flows into urban and transport sectors have engineered expansion of business and commerce, and also caused expansion of cities into megalopolises with massive and growing economic disparities. Rural economies have collapsed, starkly indicated by suicides by over 600,000 farmers over the past quarter century – unprecedented in the history of any country – forcing youth to come to cities in search of employment.

The sheer scale of the precarious existence of migrants was shockingly witnessed when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘lockdown without a plan’ to tackle COVID pandemic resulted in at least 2 million being forced to walk back to their villages in the blasting heat of India’s summer for survival.

It must also be noted that this despairing situation prevails despite the fact that the past quarter century witnessed heightened interest in advancing environmental regulation, forest protection and biodiversity conservation, if legislative actions and judgements passed by the courts are any indicator.

ND Tiwari panel 

A major foundation for India’s environmental jurisprudence was laid with recommendations of the 1980 ND Tiwari Committee (set up to recommend legislative measures and administrative machinery for ensuring environmental protection), which fore-staged environmental protection considerations over economic imperatives.

Also read: Madhya Pradesh’s Karam Dam collapse averted; villagers return to their homes

Various Supreme Court rulings have also promoted such jurisprudence. The Polluter Pays Principle, Doctrine of Public Trust, Precautionary Principle, Principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent, Principle of Ecocentrism, etc., are some examples of the advancement of India’s environmental jurisprudence through judicial interventions.

The passage of the Forest Conservation Act (1981) and India’s enthusiastic participation in the Brundtland Commission on Sustainable Development (1984) set the stage for the enactment of the Environment Protection Act, 1986 (EP Act) as an umbrella law. The horrific corporate crime of a deadly gas leak from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal in the early hours of  December 2, 1984, killing thousands in their sleep and injuring hundreds of thousands more for life, had only reminded the nation of the critical importance of taking environmental regulation absolutely seriously.

What is important to note is that the Bhopal crime occurred a decade after the passage of the 1974 Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, which also established autonomous Pollution Control Boards, and the enactment of 1982 Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.

Unabated destruction

Mere passage of progressive laws without effective environmental regulation did not guarantee improved environmental safety. Similarly, forest destruction and wildlife poaching continued unabated despite enactment of Wildlife Act 1972 and the Forest Conservation Act, 1981 that strengthened forest departments’ powers enormously, while taking away the rights of millions of adivasis and indigenous communities over forests which they lived in and protected.

With India ratifying the 1992 Rio Declaration and Convention on Biological Diversity, efforts were renewed to get the environmental cause back on track. The Panchayat (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 (BDA), Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI) and Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), were outcomes of sustained struggles of millions and based on high degrees of public involvement – rare in India’s legislative history. 

These reforms raised hopes that historical injustices committed against adivasis and indigenous populations would be corrected with due dispatch and that they would now have a real shot at securing their futures bereft of fear, uncertainty and despair.

Also read: Kasturirangan report: Breather for Karnataka as Centre orders physical land survey

Two decades later, critical indicators of performance reveal weak and uncoordinated institutional efforts to address environmental degradation and protect rights of natural resource dependent communities. Some indicators of the prevailing situation:

  • The Biodiversity Management Committees and Forest Rights Committees, which guarantee direct rights to shape how natural resources are used and conserved, are largely not constituted. And, if they are, they are not allowed to function optimally
  • Most rivers, streams, ponds and wetlands across India are dammed, diverted, destroyed, overdrawn, and also polluted. Vast groundwater aquifers which supply a major proportion of water for drinking, agriculture and urban-industrial demands are depleting rapidly and increasingly found contaminated, including with traces of uranium, as is the case in several districts of Karnataka
  • Heatwaves are widespread in summer and extensive flooding is not limited only to the monsoon period. Besides, flooding and landslides is increasing even in the mountainous Western Ghats and Himalayas, possibly due to extensive forest depletion and infrastructure development
  • Air pollution is a major concern almost everywhere, not only in major metros, and is a cause of 2.5 million premature deaths annually
  • Budgetary allocation for environmental management and regulation has reduced systematically, even as impacts of pollution and environmental degradation are being felt everywhere, as is evident, for instance, from the high volume of PILs linked to environmental contestations in just about every court across India

Global environment index

The Yale and Columbia universities’ 2022 Environment Performance Index (EPI) rated India’s performance the worst globally. While it could have been a moment for reflection, and thoughtful response, India’s Environment, Forests and Climate Change Ministry chose to react by attacking the EPI with a press release, in which it was claimed the empirical evidence was based on poor science, but without verifiable data.

Meanwhile, tall claims of high environmental performance are spread across all reports issued by the ministry. For instance, India’s State of Forest Report 2021 claimed forest cover has actually increased, which independent researchers were quick to point out is because plantations were counted as forests.

A largely tokenistic and brazenly pro-corporate approach has become characteristic of environmental management and regulation. This is best evidenced by recommendations of the TSR Subramanian Committee, the first major policy initiative constituted by Modi on becoming PM in 2014.

After rushed and shallow ‘consultations’, the committee held with a select few, it proposed comprehensive dilution of all of India’s environmental laws, and argued jurisprudence based on the ‘principle of utmost good faith’ trusting industrialists, investors and infrastructure developers to voluntarily act to contain pollution and safeguard environment, must follow. Yielding to massive nation-wide criticism, the report was held back.

However, subsequent years are witness to how the Subramanian Committee’s troubling recommendations have found life in one form or another to substantially weaken India’s environmental jurisprudence.

This was evident in how the Draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020 was sought to be formalised, when the nation reeled under COVID and lockdowns. And from earlier this year, major amendments have been proposed to every environmental, biodiversity conservation, forest protection and pollution control law of India, which argue against treating environmental violations as crimes, and propose self-certification as a method to tackle environmental degradation and pollution. If these reforms go through, it is highly likely that the state of India’s environment will deteriorate even more rapidly.

Grandstanding at Glasgow

From this assessment of the prevailing situation, if we are to assess what India’s environment and associated human rights would be in 25 years, it is difficult to imagine a better India. But, for Narendra Modi, a crisis is an opportunity for grandstanding which he did during the 26th Conference of Parties of UN Climate talks in Glasgow last year, where he claimed India would install 500 GW of renewable energy (essentially through solar and wind farms) by 2030.

This, when just about half the target of 175 GW ‘green energy’ for 2022 has been achieved. Close evaluation of such ‘green energy’ projects reveal they are guided by extractive approaches with prime agricultural and pastoral lands, and commons, being diverted without in any manner worrying about massive ecological and social impacts – for such projects are exempt from environmental review.

The population of the Great Indian Bustard, found roaming just about everywhere across the arid and semi-arid regions of India at the time of Independence, is now precariously low: just over 100 individuals are left in India and Pakistan combined. If this trend continues, we will witness the extinction of one of the most dynamic grasslands birds on this planet.

The bustard warning

Serving as an ecological indicator, the bustard is warning us that far worse would be the situation when India turns 100, if weakening of environmental jurisprudence, management and regulation is sustained. And a clear pathway to reverse this trend is available in the Constitution, particularly in the 1992 Constitutional 73rd (Panchayat Raj) and 74th (Nagar Palika) Acts which mandate deeply democratic efforts to use wisely India’s natural resources, bioresources, water, land, minerals, etc., with the Principle of Intergenerational Equity, Public Trust Doctrine, Polluter Pays Principle, Precautionary Principle, etc., guiding every public and corporate decision.

In effect, this is what Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, economist JC Kumarappa et al imagined India would be today.

(The writer is a researcher and founder trustee and coordinator of the non-profit Environment Support Group. He can be reached at

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