After the industrial revolution of the 19th century, mankind has progressed at an unprecedented pace. The emergence of great factories, technological development and better standard of living for the general population has made life a lot more convenient for us. But all this has come at a cost. Rapid development of the world has resulted in a rapid deterioration of the environment and a rapid depletion of natural resources. For decades governments focused on economic growth, ignoring its impact on the environment. But the more we came farther on the path of development, the more we realised that we cannot flourish unless our environment flourishes too.
Thus, it was in the latter half of the 20th century that governments around the world took notice of the impending doom. Initially the Constitution of India had no direct provision for environment protection. It was later amended to incorporate Articles 48-A and 51-A(g).
The constitution under Part IVA (Article 51A- Fundamental Duties) casts a duty on every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment and to have compassion for living creatures. Further, the Constitution of India under Part IV (Article 48A- Directive Principles of State Policy) stipulates that the State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country.
In India, a push for setting up a well-developed framework for environment protection came after the UN Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972). The National Council for Environmental Policy and Planning was set up in 1972. This council later evolved into the Ministry of Environment and Forests. There are numerous legislations in force for environment protection in the country such as,
- The Environment Protection Act, 1986
- The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981
- The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974
- The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010
- The Hazardous Waste Management Regulations, etc.
- The Forest Conservation Act, 1980
- The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972
- Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991
- The Biological Diversity Act, 2002
Despite having these vast number of legislations, the environmental issues continue to worsen in the country. There has been a consistent increase in air pollution that has caused increased morbidity rates and shortened life expectancy. Despite India’s commitment to reduce its emission intensity, country’s burgeoning population projections compounded with rapid economic growth reflect unpromising efforts to reduce emission of greenhouse gases. Discharge of untreated sewage is a major cause of pollution of surface and groundwater in the country since there is a large gap between the generation and treatment of domestic waste water. The majority of government owned sewage treatment plants remain closed most of the time due to improper design, poor maintenance, lack of electricity, along with severe understaffing. Over 100 Indian cities dump sewage directly into the Ganga River[i].
According to NASA groundwater declines are highest on Earth in Northern India. Also, trash and garbage are a common sight in urban and rural areas of India. Out of the world’s 30 most polluted cities, India is home to 21 as of 2020.[ii] In 2000, the Supreme Court of India directed all Indian cities to implement a comprehensive waste- management programme. These directions have simply been ignored. No major city runs a significant decline in the forest cover of the country which has a devastating effect on wildlife and biodiversity. According to government data, 14000sq km of forests were cleared to accommodate 23716 industrial projects across India over the last 30 years.[iii] India’s total forest cover remains a dim 22 percent.
All these problems point to a stunning failure of governance. It also points to the fact that although our Environmental Laws seem vast and comprehensive in theory, they are weak in application. Once a legislation is enforced, it also has to be implemented. For effective implementation there has to be an effective agency to collect relevant data, process it and pass it on to a law enforcement agency. If the law or rule is broken by an individual or institution, this has to be punished through a legal process. More often than not, environmental problems become impossible to solve because of the time taken for research.
Once a threat is identified, action should be taken to prevent or control damage even if there is uncertainty about whether the threat is real. Information should be readily available to the public. The people must be guided to establish the trend of acceptance of the duty to protect the environment and the Earth’s resources.
The government has to understand that the moment of crisis has come. It is time to make environment protection the top priority and the most compelling factor when framing State Policies. The framework for protecting the environment and biodiversity needs to be strengthened and more power needs to be given to the agencies implementing the legislations. The citizens of the country also need to uphold the duty of protecting the environment with great enthusiasm as real success can only be achieved if there is a change in our society because that would lead to a change in our economics and in our politics.
It is not just India but it is the whole world which is failing. The first ever global assessment of environmental rule of law by the United Nations Environment Programme, found weak enforcement to be a global trend that is exacerbating environmental threats, despite prolific growth in environmental laws and agencies over the last four decades.[iv] Political will is now critical to make sure that our laws work for the planet. The environmental challenges facing the mankind are numerous and complex. Most governments now recognise that environmental issues are interwind with social, cultural and economic issues.
The main challenges are determining how to restore natural resources and designing strategies to enable future growth while protecting the environment, maintaining biodiversity, safeguarding human health and preserving cultural and social values. This requires a global regulatory framework that is supportive, facilitating and enabling. There is no scope of delaying this any further. As the great natural historian David Attenborough has said, “we are at a unique stage in our history. Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had the power to do something about that.
Surely, we all have a responsibility to care for our Blue Planet. The future of humanity and indeed all life on earth, now depends on us.”
My fellow citizens, the time of action is now.
[i] Pollution of the Ganges, Wikipedia.com
[ii] World’s most polluted cities, IQAIR, iqair.com
[iv] Environmental Rule of Law: First Global Report, United Nations Environment Programme
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