Govt renews pledge to Paris pact, environment

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Connecting people to nature. That is the theme the UN has chosen for the World Environment Day this year. This is how the UN suggests we celebrate it. It “implores us to get outdoors and into nature, to appreciate its beauty and its importance, and to take forward the call to protect the Earth that we share”.

But, as the UN website admits, billions of people living in rural surroundings do directly connect to nature. So, this is a call to the rest. That implies, in India it is an entreaty to about 30 per cent of the population living in urban zones.

But the Union environment, forests and climate change minister, Harsh Vardhan, took a step beyond the UN theme and said, “The real sentiment behind World Environment Day should not be restricted to a single day, but must pervade every moment of the day, till the World Environment Day next year.”

The minister, just recently taking over the reins after the demise of the erstwhile minister Anil Madhav Dave, is yet to meet the media as part of the NDA government’s three-year out reach. But a senior official in the ministry says that one of the key achievements of the government in this sector has been to simplify the regulations and processes for the four kinds of green clearances. The ministry had cleared more than 1,000 projects and another 1,200 were in line for clearance, he said. This, the ministry projects, add up investments worth Rs 7.4 lakh crore and will generate employment for more than 250,000 people. The numbers could not be independently verified.

Beyond the ministry, the government has some marquee initiatives that it can celebrate on an environment day — the distribution of LED low-cost bulbs; the enhanced version of the Total Sanitation Campaign, or the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan; and the distribution of LPG connections across the country under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana. The results of the latter two are still under assessment but as an idea both make promises at scale and with deep potential.

The NDA’s fourth target on the environmental front worth celebrating has been the ambitious target for solar energy — to achieve 100 Gw by 2022. It is unlikely to meet its target for 2017 (12 Gw) or 2018 (15 Gw), thereby slipping off the 2022 target as well. Yet the high ambition means solar power is coming online at a rate not seen before.

The government’s confidence in being able to greening its power sources is evident in the manner that it has immediately reaffirmed its commitment to the Paris Agreement. While not wanting to comment on the US’ exit, the minister said, “As far as India is concerned, I can promise that we shall comply with the commitment (under the Paris Agreement) in letter and spirit."

He added, “India is the most honest in terms of commitment for respected issues related to the environment, fight against pollution, preservation of biodiversity, forest, nature, river and everything.”

This commitment towards environment beyond the large marquee projects of the Prime Minister though is contested by critics. 

The dilution of environmental norms and rewriting of regulations for ease of business have not gone down well with environmentalists, including at times with the RSS affiliates. 

The most recent three examples have been the green light to commercial cropping of GM mustard, the go ahead to interlinking the Ken and Betwa rivers in Madhya Pradesh, and the move to dilute the coastal safety regulations, the news of which leaked out a while back. 

The government has recently drawn fire from several quarters for tweaking the animal protection regulations in a manner that will choke the trade of cattle for slaughter across the country. 

The World Environment Day may be one way for the world to remember and renew its pledge to the idea but for the government of an emerging economy it is a perpetual work in progress, driven by twin pulls of growth and sustainable development.

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