Written specially for Vikalp Sangam
Stop messing with the environment and people’s rights! – A People’s Parliament tells the Indian Government
In a unique exercise, a Janta Parliament (People’s Parliament) was organised from 16 to 21st August by several dozen networks and organisations in India. The main objective was to highlight the fact that the Indian Parliament has not met when it should have (even if online, as many are around the world), and that this is a loss of opportunity for people to highlight serious issues through their elected representatives. A context to this is the widespread realisation that the current government is particularly callous with regard to environmental issues and the interests and rights of marginalised peoples, that it is further destroying an already weakened democratic foundation, and that accountability of the state, even if a limited part of democracy, has to be established.
The event gave a chance to people from across the country to share their experience regarding the full range of social, economic, political, ecological, cultural problems they are facing in the COVID lockdown period, as also instances of resilience, and proposals for pathways out of the crises they face. This was an occasion to both raise issues in the public domain, exercising especially our right to dissent and voice our opinion, as also for movements across the country to be on a common collaborative platform. With two sessions every day, each dedicated to specific themes, the Janta Parliament involved over 43 hours of discussions, about 250 speakers, over 100 resolutions voted on by more than 1000 participants, and the engagement of over 100,000 people on social media. Several Members of Parliament also participated, and a subsequent exercise has put together some key demands that all political parties are being requested to raise in official Parliament (which is finally being held in mid-September, though with severe curtailments of time and very few spaces for Members to raise questions).
Using COVID, the government regresses on the environment
One of the 10 sessions of the Janta Parliament was dedicated to environmental issues, recognising its central role in sustaining life and livelihoods, and the clear scientific evidence of the links between ecological devastation and pandemics like the current one.This realization should have been a wake-up call for all governments to halt or phase out activities that cause irreversible damage, such as open-pit mining, and re-assess what ‘development’ should really mean. Given that COVID has also sharply exposed the economic and social faultlines due to which hundreds of millions of people live precarious lives, it should also have been a period to rethink an economy that has enormously increased inequality and vulnerability.
Unfortunately, the Indian government is going in the opposite direction. During the COVID lockdown since late March, it has taken a series of regressive decisions. These include:
- Auctions for around 40 new coal mining blocks announced in ecologically fragile, biodiverse areas of central and east India, home to tribal and other vulnerable communities. This is in violation of India’s commitments under international climate agreements, as also of rights of forest-based communities under domestic laws like Forest Rights Act and Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act.
- Virtual environmental appraisals and approvals for ecologicaly destructive projects across India during the lockdown, including within protected areas, and in regions like Kashmir using its new status completely subservient to the government in Delhi;
Construction (including demolition activity, tree felling) of contentious projects, including Mumbai Coastal Road, and redevelopment of colonies in Delhi.
- Introduction of a draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, which significantly and blatantly dilutes an already weak 2006 notification, condoning or encouraging violations, removing safeguards from several damaging categories of projects, and reducing public participation; the notification is so bad that even schoolchildren across India protested, as did several opposition parties who rarely speak on environmental issues.
- Announcement of Draft Fisheries Policy asking for comments during lockdown; fisher communities and civil society protested saying that it was oriented more towards commercialisation and corporatisation than towards artisanal and traditional fisher communities and conservation.
Meanwhile, during the COVID period, when there was clearly no monitoring or supervision of projects, there have been a series of industrial accidents and project disasters. This includes the Vishakhapatnam gas leak, and the Baghjan oil well disaster. These appear not to have taught the government any lesson.
All of this is accompanied by the most serious and widespread consequences of the COVID lockdown on vulnerable communities, including adivasis and other forest-dwelling communities, migrant labourers and casual workers.
For the government, the inability of people to gather for protests, or for civil society to do ground-level mobilisation, and to use the situation as an excuse to have limited or no physical public hearings, have been a godsend. The media too has been pre-occupied with COVID reporting, or other dramas involving actor suicides and the like. However, one thing the government did not anticipate is the sheer scale of online protests, especially by youth, against the proposed EIA notification. With a wide spectrum of organisations and individuals, including politicians, scientists, and individuals other than the usual lot of environmentalists, joining in, this appeared to be India’s environmental George Floyd moment.
Demands and resolutions from Janta Parliament
Against this backdrop, a dozen-odd organisations and networks put together the environment session of the Janta Parliament: Kalpavriksh, National Alliance of People’s Movements, Environment Support Group, Greenpeace India, Veditum, Fridays for Future India, Extinction Rebellion India, Let India Breathe, Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, Vikalp Sangam, and Yugma. Some of these are networks with several dozen constituent organisations, so collectively the co-organisers represent tens of thousands of people. Given a rather short time frame in the run up to the session, apart from fresh consultation, the co-organisers relied on previous processes of widespread consultation, such as the making of a set of national-level demands and recommendations on alternative approaches by the Vikalp Sangam process. At the session, about 25 environmental activists, researchers, scientists, lawyers, from various parts of India, spoke; a special slot was given to youth representing several of the above groups. They covered issues ranging from the general decline of environmental governance and the need to respond to the climate crisis, to issues affecting specific parts of India, to specific themes like pollution, water, energy, wildlife and biodiversity, displacement by development or conservation projects, etc. The Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) had been invited, but did not respond; a couple of MPs of opposition parties were, however, present.
Based on previous consultations and drafting, and with these presentations providing substance, eight resolutions were adopted unanimously or near-unanimously, with about 300 people voting on them.
Stop destructive development!
The most immediate demand was to “withdraw clearances given to mining, industrial, and infrastructural projects in ecologically and culturally sensitive areas in the last 5 months, and auctioning of coal mining blocks; and withdraw the draft EIA notification 2020.” Instead, a demand that has been voiced by civil society for decades, was highlighted: “widespread consultation to draft a comprehensive environmental regulatory regime, coordinated by a team of independent people with substantial environmental expertise (including from local communities) … and including a thorough, participatory review of experience of the existing EIA notification.” Meanwhile, it was felt that there should be an immediate stoppage of all diversion of forests, wetlands, coasts and other ecosystems for mining, industrial, and infrastructural/development projects (other than very small ones necessary for community basic needs), till such a regulatory regime is in place.
One of the facts noted in the session is that the Indian government’s actions in allowing or even encouraging ecologically destructive activities, are a violation of several international agreements it is party to. This includes the Biodiversity Convention, and Sustainable Development Goals, and the Paris Convention (which is already pretty weak!). The session demanded that India take legal and programmatic steps to fulfil these commitments.
Recognising that even a comprehensive regulatory mechanism may not be adequate if the current model of ‘development’ with its overwhelming fixation on economic growth at (literally!) all costs, there was a need to “place ecological sustainability at the centre of all planning, budgeting, and programmes related to development, rather than being considered an externality or a formality for clearance purposes”, and to move to “a more sustainable and equitable, lower energy and material consumption, labour and knowledge centric” approach.
Given that the session was trying to mimic a session of the Indian Parliament, and that the resolutions are aimed at the government, they did not go into more fundamental transformations regarding the nature of the state and of the economy. Especially important is to challenge capitalism, centralised state and liberal democracy, patriarchy, casteism, and human-centredness), if ecological sanity is to prevail.
Local communities should be at the core of decision-making
However, one crucial component of this was picked up in another resolution: the need for empowerment of rural and urban local self-governance bodies (gram sabhas, area or ward sabhas, traditional institutions specific to tribal peoples, and so on) to be at the centre of decision-making on anything affecting their lives. The spirit of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments on local self-governance needs to be fully actualized; so far, they have been only half-heartedly conceived and implemented. This would require legal revisions, e.g. in panchayat laws to grant financial and legal powers (so far denied), or others relevant to Schedule 5 and 6 areas and states with special constitutional status, and laws recognising community rights of governance of natural ecosystems (akin to the Forest Rights Act but over non-forest ecosystems also). Also needed is a comprehensive framework law for democratic urban governance, empowering urban local bodies (ULBs) like neighbourhood assemblies/area sabhas on all matters relating to the lives and livelihoods of residents.
Transferring power to local bodies is of course not in itself adequate, because people’s capacities to self-govern have been systematicallyemasculated by over two centuries of colonial and post-independence centralized rule. Facilitation is needed to help regain self-confidence, add capacity and generate resources, building on traditional or local community knowledge, and “in a manner that ensures full representation of marginalised sections to ensure social justice.”
COVID recovery plan must focus on nature-based livelihoods
Linked to this is the question of livelihoods. The session noted that the government’s ‘atmanirbharbharat’ (self-reliant India) package is oriented to corporatization, the private sector, and big players in all sectors, and has little on helping revive or sustain the hundreds of millions of people whose livelihoods are based on nature and natural resources. It demanded that the recovery should be oriented to “generating tens of millions of ecologically sustainable and dignified livelihoods, such as: small-farmer based organic agriculture (shifting current fertilizer subsidy completely into this over a 5-year period), assistance to pastoralists, fishers and forest-dwellers, decentralized renewable energy and water harvesting, dispersed production of goods and services with a strong biomass and handmade base, integrated health services, cottage industries including crafts, and a massive livelihood programme based on regenerating the country’s degraded soils and water systems”. The session also sought a revision of the draft National Fisheries Policy 2020 and the PM’s Matsya Sampada Yojana programme, both currently leaning towards commercialised, big-player fisheries, to instead support the food security and livelihoods of traditional fishing communities.
In the medium and long run, the direction needs to be towards enabling “local, self-reliant economies, through all relevant schemes and programmes including MGNREGS,using local and new skills and resources, catering first and foremost to local basic needs, and building larger trade on this (rather than undermining it).” And through this and the recovery package mentioned above, the aim should be to “significantly reduce distress rural-urban migration, and enable workers who have gone back home in COVID times to stay on if they want to with the security of dignified livelihoods.”
This kind of re-orientation of rural and urban economies also requires the regeneration and conservation of forests, coastal and marine, grassland, wetland, desert and mountain areas, and the wildlife and biodiversity in them. This can be underlined by bringing in Constitutional rights of nature (akin to what Ecuador has done, for instance). But conservation itself has to be centred on governance by, and integrating fundamental livelihood rights of, communities that live amidst or along such ecosystems, immediately stopping the eviction and dispossession of communities in the name of wildlife conservation. All this can be part of a comprehensive natural ecosystem conservation policy, and new laws or changes in existing ones like the Indian Forest Act and Wild Life (Protection) Act.
Tackle pollution and the climate crisis
Another resolution demanded urgent and comprehensive action to tackle pollution of various kinds, which are at horrendously high levels across India. Steps to bring back the quality of air, water, soils to levels that are safe for human use and for other species are desperately needed, for which appropriate revisions in relevant laws and in programmes like the National Clean Air Plan are being sought. And given that bodies under the government set up to monitor and ensure compliance are badly compromised and manipulated, the resolution also asks for their independence. Such autonomous functioning, and the involvement of citizens at all levels, was also sought for better management of flood risk, including how reservoirs are managed, in another of the session’s resolutions.
Recognising also that India, like all other countries, is already facing severe impacts of the climate crisis, the session urged a revision of the national climate action plan to enhance mitigation and adaptation goals, and a specific target for emission peaking, ensuring in this participation of communities most impacted. And of course this cannot be done without a radical shift in the energy policy, including “significantly reducing elite demand for power, reorienting the national energy policy away from fossil fuels, large hydro and nuclear towards decentralised renewable energy.”
The climate crisis (as indeed the crisis of biodiversity, and the imperatives of managing large ecological entities like rivers), also bring out the need to look at environmental issues as regional, and not only national. All of South Asia is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and its nations are interlocked through shared ecosystems. Unfortunately in COVID times the war of words between India and its neighbouring countries on issues like the sharing of river waters, has only intensified. The session urged renewal of cooperation at the level of the entire subcontinent, through institutions like SAARC and other forms of dialogue and collaborative action, to deal with trans-boundary issues.
Overall, we need environmental justice!
A recurring theme in the session, and in its resolutions, is that of environmental justice. As the resolutions noted, “there is serious inequality in who causes the problem and who is most badly affected, a situation of grave ecological injustice”. This is true not only ofthe relations between the North and the South, globally, but in those of the rich and the poor, or men and women, or different castes, within India. All actions on the environment need to lead to greater environmental justice. Urban elite consumption of resources, such as water, has also to be curtailed by mandating that cities can get water from outside only after having exhausted all options for storage, wise use, and recycling, as per another of the session’s resolutions. This includes “a just transition that includes reparation and wealth redistribution from elites and rich populations that have caused much of the problem … to marginalised sections who are facing the brunt of the crises, including through climate and ecological taxes on the rich.” This also requires that in all actions, there is “central participation of the most marginalised sections, including women, children, landless, ‘disabled’, adivasis, and dalits, and of youth”. They have to be able to exercise their own agency.
Overall, the Environment session laid stress on the theme of justice running through the Janta Parliament. India’s present and future well-being depends on recognizing and tackling the deep-rooted inequalities in society, the injustices of the current economic and political system, and the unsustainability of a growth model that has no respect for ecological limits and for other species. In their place, we need community-led, deeply democratic, ecologically centred pathways of well-being. There are hundreds of examples of this already in India, including many that have demonstrated resilience in the COVID crisis, from whom we have to learn to spread a diversity of such approaches across the nation.
The author is with Kalpavriksh, Vikalp Sangam and Global Tapestry of Alternatives. Contact him
Brief statistics, information and highlights from the Janta Parliament may be accessed here.
Videos, press releases and resolutions from each session have been archived here.
A comprehensive ‘People’s Policy for Post COVID-19 Times’ as well as a collation of all resolutions from the Janta Parliament is available here.
Environment session of Janta Parliament