In the past decade, NDA’s approach to development through relentless pursuit of infrastructure has come at a steep cost. To say the least, it has been both uncooperative and myopic in nature.

While “infrastructure” has become a ubiquitous development mantra in India over the past decade, its pitfalls deserve deeper scrutiny. Fueled by ambitions of becoming a manufacturing powerhouse and the goal of becoming a $5-trillion economy, rivalling China, the incumbent government has poured significant resources into this sector. Yet, the drive for infrastructure in the past ten years, evident in the year-on-year rise in capital expenditure, has been marred by the weakening of environmental protections.

Ranked as the fourth deadliest country for environmental activists, India also holds the distinction of being the worst performing country in the 2022 Environmental Performance Index.

A regime of ‘Clearance Raj’

The wholesale granting of environmental clearances has sparked concerns as they often tip the scales in favour of project promoters. There is clear evidence of project proponents frequently overlooking public consultations, and the new Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification of 2020 aims to diminish the importance of this step altogether. Let’s recall two recent high-profile industrial accidents: the gas leak at the LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam in May, 2020 and the fire at Oil India Limited’s Baghjan oil well in Assam’s East Tinsukia in June 2020. Both of the projects, in this case, were operating without any form of clearance.

In the first four years of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government,  520infrastructure projects have received environmental clearances, which include industrial estates, buildings, roads, highways, and also projects in coastal areas. From 2018 to 2022, clearances for wildlife, forests, environment, and coastal zones witnessed a phenomenal growth of over 2,000%, soaring from 577 to 12,496.

Weakening of environmental protections for infrastructure and industry

According to an article in Down to Earth, since 2018, the EIA notification, which seeks to prevent environmental harm, has undergone a staggering number of around 110 changes, through office memorandums. The year 2023 has witnessed the largest number of such revisions.

In 2022,  in a move seen to favour the corporates, the government sought to eliminate the requirements of having mandatory environmental impact assessments for the expansion of airport projects. Fishing harbours with a capacity of up to 30,000 tons per year are now exempt, representing a threefold increase from the previous limit of 10,000 tons per year. Strategic highways have also been proposed to be exempted from the necessity of going through an environmental impact assessment.

Another instance is the weakening of the 2006 EIA notification through a 2017 notification. Ironically, the government’s justification for this approach was to bring these projects into the regulatory framework and enable stricter monitoring. However, a fact sheet prepared by the Centre for Science and Environment in 2018 indicates a very poor track record of monitoring projects granted clearances since 2014. Initially intended as a one-time opportunity to approve projects, the 2017 notification evolved into a regular occurrencefollowing a Union Environment Ministry notification in July 2021. This extended ex-post facto approval to over 100 projects until the Supreme Court intervened and placed a stay on the notification in January of this year.

This move faced heavy criticism from environmental activists, who argued that the ministry failed to take a firm stance against projects that had already begun operations without adhering to the Environmental Protection Act of 1986.

Efforts to expedite approvals for large-scale commercial projects have also come at the cost of weakening the safeguards established by the 2011 Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification.

Fish worker unions and environmental groups criticised the notification on the grounds of lack of consultation with coastal communities and fisher folks, potentially paving the way for development that could harm coastal regions.

For example, the revised CRZ notification has reduced the ‘No Development Zone’ along coastal areas and rivers from 200m, as stipulated in the CRZ Notification 2011, to just 50m. It permits the mining of critical atomic minerals such as uranium in environmentally sensitive coastal regions.

Mining in ecologically sensitive Coastal Regulation Zones (CRZs) carries a multitude of risks. It can destabilise shorelines, increase saltwater intrusion into groundwater (displacing coastal communities), and potentially lead to radiation contamination, as evidenced by cases like Kanyakumari where effects were felt up to 85 km away.  Fisher’s organisationshave fiercely opposed such mining due to the threat it poses to their livelihoods.

In addition to granting clearance exemptions to projects ranging from real estate to renewable energy– the diversion of forest areas for infrastructure projects through the Forest Conservation Amendment Act, 2023 is another such example of the dilution of existing environmental safeguards under the NDA government’s administration. The new Forest Conservation Amendment Act (FCA) removes protection from “deemed forests,” potentially exposing around 25% of India’s forests to urbanisation, mining, and infrastructural development. This may also impinge upon the rights of tribal and forest-dwelling communities under the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA). It also opens all forested areas within 100 km from  India’s borders to “strategic linear projects of national importance, and concerning national security,” impacting communities in the northeastern states, western ghats, and trans Himalayan region.

Offering a glimmer of hope, the Supreme Court recently directed the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to revert to the previous, more comprehensive definition of forests. This broader definition aligns with the significant 1996 Godavarman ruling, in contrast to the limited definition found in the recently amended Forest Conservation Act.

From 2015 to March 2020, the government approved the conversion of 409 of forest land for various construction projects.

Mega projects, mega messes: Environmental and social impacts of large-scale projects

With its penchant for self-praise, the NDA government will beat the trumpet on the increased government investments on infrastructure. Undoubtedly, the allocation for infrastructure has surged notably from FY 2018-19 to FY 2024-25, witnessing a remarkable269.82% increase in capital expenditure allocation. As per the records of Land Conflict Watch, more than 4.6 million individuals have been impacted by land-related disputes associated with infrastructure projects in India. Till 2024, there are 295 ongoing conflicts, covering a land area of 1,083,859 hectares. According to a 2020 Land Conflict Watch report, the infrastructure sector in India faces the highest number of land conflicts. Notably, 43% of these conflicts stem from infrastructure projects like townships, real estate development, road construction, and irrigation projects.

For instance, the Mumbai coastal sea road project, reclaiming 164 hectares of land, has encountered significant opposition due to the potential threat it poses to the traditional fishing colonies of Mumbai’s fishing communities, and their livelihood. Fishermen lament that construction works around the project have driven fish farther offshore. On top of it, many environmental activists, and youth groups have raised their concerns that  the project runs the risk of destroying the mangroves, and marine wildlife that thrives along the coast.

Communities residing along Gujarat’s coastline have also underscored the occurrence of fish being compelled farther into the sea by large-scale industrial projects. Due to the onslaught of the industrial cluster, and purposeful unawareness of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board, the coastline of Gujarat has hardly any catch to offer. This intentional disregard for industrial pollution has become a part of the broader practice of State Pollution Control Boards granting exemptions to polluting industries, sparing them from regular inspections.

An uncooperative and myopic dictate of ‘development’

In the past decade, NDA’s approach to development through relentless pursuit of infrastructure has come at a steep cost. To say the least, it has been both uncooperative and myopic in nature. As Virginius Xaxa has argued,  the displacement of Adivasi tribes at the cost of large-scale infrastructure projects, points to the hollowness of the slogan “sabka sath, sabka vikas” which was one of the primary slogans with which the BJP had come to power in 2014.

Despite the growing reality that large-scale infrastructure projects often threaten the livelihoods of coastal communities, the perverse pursuance of “development” through these projects in these areas remains concerningly prevalent. Under the Sagarmala Scheme, the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways has funded 171 projects worth Rs. 4533 Cracross coastal states and UTs.

However, the precarious position of these infrastructure projects cannot be ignored. India ranks as the third-most affected country by climate change amongst the top 50 nations. This vulnerability is particularly acute in coastal regions, which face a multitude of land and marine hazards like shoreline erosion, devastating tropical cyclones, and storm surges.

What makes the problem more dire is that climate-related extreme weather events have inflicted a staggering cost of Rs 3,65,860 crore in damages to infrastructure and housing, representing a significant 3% of India’s GDP.

This article was originally published in The Wire and can be read here.

The article is the eighth in a series co-curated by The Wire and Centre for Financial Accountability.

Read the series here.

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