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Environmental activism, law and policy

Teeming with wildlife, forest areas, and natural habitats, our country boasts of a rich, green and plush environment. As a dense country with a large population, it has become increasingly clear that housing the numbers has required compromising on environmental justice. The precarious balance between conserving the ecosystem and paving way for industrialization and development has been tipping against environmental and social justice in recent times. India has been finding itself at the bottom of the Environment Performance Index (EPI) over the last few years, with children and adults alike choking in the polluted air in the prestigious capital city of New Delhi. The devastating and far-reaching effect of climate change in most aspects of the social lives of citizens is threatening their health, livelihood, liberty and lives. The recent report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in very clear terms points towards the looming environmental crises faced by the earth, suggesting rapid and long-lasting environmental impacts. In a dangerously scary situation such as this, law and policy in India has proven to be insufficient in the protection and safeguarding of the environment and its indigenous people. There is barely any response elicited from the lawmakers and the authorities on this front. 

Indian law and the recent development in Indian environmental jurisprudence in judgments across courts in the country has seen an almost uncritical acceptance of a neo-liberal vision of industrial expansion based on an economic growth paradigm. The status quo has also brought about the shaping of a class struggle amongst workers, Dalits and women who have been adversely affected by the degradation of the environment. The courts have failed to go beyond policy and pure reasoning in their approach to ecological issues. There is a notable setback with respect to a lack of a system of public notification and a transparent and open process of selection and appointment of decision makers who are rightfully equipped to deal with ecological matters. The Supreme Court post the landmark MC Mehta judgment had called for decentralized environmental courts and the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 was passed. The judiciary in their attempt to set up specialized courts failed to take into account and incorporate the already existing merits of the judicial system. Motivated by green courts in westernized foreign countries, the process of setting up these specialized courts failed to take into account the plight of the indigenous people who already lack institutional support and accessibility to the protection of the law. The new system has repeatedly failed to be adequate both structurally and functionally to satisfy the environment related grievances of the tribal and indigenous people in the remotest areas of this vast country. With only five branches across the country located in metropolitan cities, it effectively curbs their access to justice which was previously available with NGOs and individuals asserting their fundamental rights in the ecological context by moving the High Court of the state they resided in. 

Environmental Justice in India leaves critical questions unanswered or under-analyzed. In the wake of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, which was one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, a new environmental jurisprudence emerged, depicting the important facet of procedural flexibility- ‘justice without law.’ A more flexible and convenient process of administration of justice came to light with a stress on Indian neo-dharmic jurisprudence. A new discourse on the extent to which the state can manage and mandate environmentally sensitive lifestyles has also taken shape with the question surrounding whether there is a need for a new regulatory order in the postmodern society. 

The snatching away of land from the indigenous people in order to achieve goals of economic development, has led to a class formation amongst the adversely affected. India has seen  myriad environmental movements in the recent past with the masses engaging in collective action in the pursuit of environmental benefits. One of the most notable movements in history was the Chipko Movement which garnered attention across the globe for the protection of the magnificent forests of the Western Himalayas. The movement saw the adoption of a consensual strategy of clinging to the trees as a non-violent and direct action. This movement was successful in its endeavour and became a turning point in the history of eco-developmental struggles. Another extremely popular movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which received huge international support, was aimed at providing justice to tribals who were displaced without adequate compensation. The Koel Karo Movement, which was a direct attack against tribal culture in its destruction of over 150 places of worship and 300 places of burial of ancestors, was a struggle that lasted 49 years in the central forests of Jharkhand. Various movements like these have brought to light the plight of the inhabitants whose entire world revolves around these natural habitats.

This edition which concentrates on  environmental activism, law and policy, aims at a deeper and more nuanced enquiry into the environmental crisis looming over our country. It deals with critical probes that question the status quo and examine a way forward. 

The Nazariya piece on water disputes and river rights throws light on the adversities and the impact of this tussle between two regions in their claim over a common water body.

Awaaz in Focus, hosts Dr. Kanchi Kohli, who has extensively worked on matters of law and environmental justice. She provides insight on the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and the delicate balance between protecting the rights of the indigenous people and the economic growth of the country.

Finally, Talk Point presents a detailed conversation with the Yugma Network, exposing the readers to a very truthful perspective on issues of environmental and social justice, exploring the caste- blindness of the law and the difficulties of organizing the masses in order to start and sustain a movement against the state and its instrumentalities.

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