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Sonia Gandhi calls for a stop to dismantling of environment rules

The government has a social obligation to protect the environment; it must withdraw the Draft EIA 2020 Notification



Sonia Gandhi

The Sanskrit words, ‘Prakriti Rakshati Rakshita’, greet visitors at the Indira Paryavaran Bhawan, the home of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, (MoEF&CC). They mean ‘nature protects, if she is protected’. This ancient Indic wisdom inspired Indira Gandhi throughout her life, as referenced in many of her letters and files. She shared a deep kinship with nature. She was also cognisant that the environment cannot be protected without eradicating poverty. The origins and spread of the global novel coronavirus pandemic and its catastrophic impact are a warning to the entire world. The protection of the environment must go hand in hand with promoting public health and access to dignified livelihoods for all.

Erosion of the framework

India with its rich biodiversity and widespread inequality must especially pay heed now. Our nation has all too often sacrificed the environment and the rights of our people while chasing the chimera of unbridled economic growth. Of course, progress requires trade-offs, but there must always be boundaries that cannot be transgressed. But over the past six years, the government has thoughtlessly — or worse, with intent — eroded our environmental protection framework. The biennial global Environmental Performance Index report has consistently put India at the bottom of its rankings. We were an alarming 177th out of 180 countries in 2018, faring badly on virtually all indicators — environmental health policy, biodiversity and habitat, air and water pollution and climate change.

The pandemic should have made the government reflect and reconsider its environmental and public health governance. Instead, the Ministry is handing out clearances during the lockdown without proper public consultations. The announcement of coal auctions by the Prime Minister in previously declared ‘no go’ areas, signals that the government is in no mood to course-correct. The disastrous Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), 2020 Notification, which among other provisions, gives a clean chit to polluters violating environmental regulations through ex-post facto approvals, will unleash unprecedented devastation on our environment.

Opaque reviews

It was apparent that a Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government would be destructive to India’s environment going by Mr. Modi’s track record in Gujarat as Chief Minister. During the 2014 election campaign, Mr. Modi slandered the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and the Environment Ministry for being an impediment to the nation’s growth. From the very start, the government has desperately sought to project an image of ‘Ease of Doing Business’ to the world, mindless of consequences. It formed multiple committees, diluted laws and regulations across the board, and opened up vast tracts of forest land to a select few in the private sector.

In 2014, the T.S.R. Subramanian Committee was set up to review six major environmental laws. Another committee was formed to amend the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), 2011 Notification. Both faced immense criticism for opacity and not consulting a wide range of stakeholders. The TSR Committee Report was never released, but some of its recommendations were surreptitiously implemented. On similar lines, the 2018 CRZ Notification was rejected by the National Fishworkers Forum and other stakeholders, for threatening the livelihoods of fishing communities and destroying coastal ecology along India’s 7,500-km long coastline. These communities contribute more than ₹50,000 crore annually to the Indian economy. They are severely impacted by climate change and natural disasters and are left to fend for themselves by the government. Likewise, the National Board for Wildlife, the Forest Advisory Committee and Expert Appraisal Committees are approving projects in and around protected wildlife areas without following due process.

The North Indian plains and the National Capital Region are engulfed in a debilitating smog year after year. According to a study in the British journal, The Lancet, 12.4 lakh deaths i.e. 12.5% of all deaths in India in 2017, could be attributed to air pollution. Yet, there has been no concerted action to address this public health emergency. Instead of stringent measures to control emissions from thermal power plants, the government extended deadlines for compliance and has made a U-turn on clean coal.

Attack on Adivasis

The government’s greatest assault has been reserved for the land and the rights of Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers. The historic Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 was passed by the UPA government to undo centuries of injustice. Our deep cultural traditions as well as experience from all over the world have demonstrated that well-defined land rights to forest dwellers are beneficial for both marginalised populations and the environment. The twisted interpretation and shoddy implementation of the FRA, 2006, has led to Adivasis and forest-dwelling communities being harassed by the Forest Department. Their legal claims to land are buried in bureaucracy. The FRA link to project approvals has been abandoned in practice, and the curtailment or elimination of public hearings means that civil society and independent or concerned voices are muzzled.

Indira Gandhi had once said that forest development corporations had become forest destruction corporations. The veracity of her observation is borne out by several proposals or actions that militate against the interests of forest dwellers. For example, there is a proposal to overhaul the colonial Indian Forest Act, 1927 to give enhanced policing and quasi-judicial powers of the forest officials. It gives forest officials powers to use firearms with unjustified levels of immunity from prosecution. Earlier, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 was passed by the government in both Houses of Parliament, ignoring the Opposition which pointed out that it bypasses the FRA, 2006, and disempowers Adivasis, forest dwellers and gram sabhas.

Promote public health

In the name of reforms, the government rolled out the red carpet for crony capitalists, systematically disenfranchised the marginalised and vulnerable populations, and abandoned its responsibility to both domestic and international commitments on climate change and environmental protection. This is a completely wrong way to go about things.

The government should recognise it has a social obligation to protect the environment and promote public health. India’s environmental protection framework is not a regulatory burden and the government must incentivise industry to shift its mindset from clearances to compliance. The Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) sector must be subsidised to follow green norms. Nobody denies that India needs a modern EIA framework. But it must be based on best available scientific knowledge, enhanced public participation and regular social audits. The concept of cumulative impacts of projects in a region or ecology — on the Ganga, for example, must be adopted. You cannot have ‘Nirmal Ganga’ without ‘Aviral Ganga’.

India as a green hub

Simply put, the government must stop dismantling India’s environmental regulations. An essential first step is to withdraw the Draft EIA 2020 Notification. What is essential is widespread public consultation to shape a national agenda that will place India at the forefront of the battle against global warming and pandemics. We have an incredible opportunity to reset our economy and demonstrate leadership to the world with a growth strategy that transforms India into a green manufacturing hub. The erstwhile Planning Commission’s expert group report on low carbon growth strategy and the many suggestions in the 2019 Congress Manifesto can be a starting point. In times of mass reverse migration, environment protection through public works programmes including afforestation and watershed development, can be turned into a grass-roots movement involving youth, women, communities, gram sabhas and non-governmental organisations. Indira Gandhi was the first major world leader to recognise the environmental crisis confronting the world in Stockholm in June 1972. Can India once again rise to the greatest challenges of the 21st century?

Sonia Gandhi is the President of the Indian National Congress


India Offers $100 Million Line of Credit To Sri Lanka For Solar Projects

India’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Gopal Baglay called on Minister of Power Dullas Alahapperuma and reiterated India’s commitment towards a strong and multi-faceted bilateral partnership including in the power sector, the Indian mission said in a statement.



solar plant at Jamia

Colombo: India has offered a Line of Credit worth $ 100 million to Sri Lanka for three solar projects in the country, according to an official statement.

India’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Gopal Baglay called on Minister of Power Dullas Alahapperuma and reiterated India’s commitment towards a strong and multi-faceted bilateral partnership including in the power sector, the Indian mission said in a statement.

They discussed various issues of mutual interest including ways to expedite progress on bilateral power projects currently under discussion between the two sides.

The Indian envoy also handed over a copy of a letter conveying an offer from India to Sri Lanka for a Line of Credit (LoC) worth $100 million for three solar projects announced during the International Solar Alliance Founding Conference held in March, 2018 in New Delhi, the statement said.

The LoC will cover financing for rooftop solar systems meant for 20,000 households and 1,000 government buildings all across the island. The combined generation capacity of these rooftop systems will be about 60 MW, it said.

The LoC will also provide financing for a floating solar power plant. The implementation of the LoC will begin with the conclusion of an LoC agreement between the two sides, it said.

The Indian High Commissioner conveyed that the $100 million LoC is in line with the national priorities of India and Sri Lanka to enhance the share of solar and renewable energy in overall energy generation, the statement added.

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Antecedents of anti Muslim bias in media including Sudarshan TV

The Sudarshan TV’s “UPSC Jihad” is, in the words of Justice Chandrachud, a “rabid” vilification of Muslims. The channel felt encouraged to cross the red line because this particular line is considered Kosher in the current political atmosphere by mainstream channels as well as fly-by-night media operators.




muslim women

There have been many but let me cite just two reactions from the family to Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and K.M. Joseph’s utterances restraining Sudarshan TV from telecasting its ‘UPSC Jihad’ show. A relative mailed a couplet comprehensive in its simplicity:

‘Door insaan ke sar se yeh musibat kar do

Aag dozakh ki bujha do, use jannat kar do’

(Remove this menace hovering over our heads,

Douse the leaping flames of hell; make it a paradise)

“Leaping flames of hell”: that is how a majority of Indian TV shows register with petrified Muslims. TV news is daily mortification; lynchings happen outdoors. The Supreme Court’s quest for “some mechanism” for self regulation of the media brings her hope. “Cricket will be played within a well measured boundary?” Not too much to expect.

The other reaction, from a younger relative is more cynical: if the Supreme Court had sharp instincts, it would have taken suo motu note of the outrage, before Sudarshan TV was able to telecast even one episode.

Incipient communalism was part of the Republic from the very beginning. Contentious issues on that score, however, did not come up when the electronic media consisted only of Doordarshan. DD, launched in the mid-70s, faced roadblocks too — as in the screening of Tamas, based on a novel by Bhishm Sahni, directed by Govind Nihalani. Centered on Partition, the director pulls no punches on exposing communalism on all sides. Since Hindu communalism had never been placed under the scanner with such candour in independent India, there was a furore. Screening was stopped. Only when Justices Bakhtawar Lentin and Sujata Manohar of Bombay High Court cleared the serial was it screened.

The Sudarshan TV’s “UPSC Jihad” is, in the words of Justice Chandrachud, a “rabid” vilification of Muslims. The channel felt encouraged to cross the red line because this particular line is considered Kosher in the current political atmosphere by mainstream channels as well as fly-by-night media operators.

An anti Muslim edge is a perceived requirement of Modi’s march towards Hindu Rashtra. But an anti Muslim edge in the media has antecedents which predate Modi. Four apparently disparate events stirred the cauldron of communalism. In 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed. The disappearance of a column in the international system on which India had depended, plus an unprecedented economic crisis, caused Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh to lurch towards Washington and swiftly embark on liberal economic policies.

With the new market economy came consumerism and the need for multiple TV channels to accommodate the burgeoning advertising. Remember, when the Babri Masjid fell in December 1992, there was only Doordarshan to televise the news. About this time, Mandal versus Kamandal, caste versus communalism spiraled out of control. It is pointless speculating whether a mushroom growth of channels went some distance in amplifying the new, energetic, communal politics. Market and identity politics is a separate study. Internal politics, however communal, would have been amenable to management. The real problem arose when globalization, spurred on by unbridled capitalism caused even Barack Obama to ask in retrospect: “Did we mishandle globalization?” I have often wondered if Ghalib’s imagery is applicable:

‘Rau mein hai rakhsh e umr kahaan dekhiye thamey,

Nay haath bag par hain, na pa hai rakab mein.”

(The steed is in full flight; I know not where it will halt;

I have lost control of the reins and, feet are not in the stirrups.)

That was globalization.

All prime ministers of India, from 1947 to the mid-90s, depended on traditional forms of mass mobilization, prior to the TV era. A more media savvy Prime Minister than Narendra Modi there has not been. He played all the strings to arrange for himself a saturation coverage of the 2014 and 2019 elections with expert ease. Crony capitalism was essential and it was easily managed.

Having brought down the Soviet Union, the US put its imprimatur on a Unipolar World Order by embarking on operation Desert Storm in February 1992. In some ways, Desert Storm bared the plans the US had for the future. The most important of these, pertinent to our narrative, was the inauguration of the Global Electronic Media which the Pentagon planned with such stealth that even an arch ally like the UK found itself flat footed. BBC’s senior correspondent, John Simpson walked around Baghdad with a lowly satellite telephone while Peter Arnett of the CNN launched the New World Information order from the terrace of Baghdad’s Al Rasheed hotel. For the first time in history, a war was brought live into our drawing rooms.

The unprecedented fire power which I saw from the 14th floor of Al Mansour hotel, remained a nightmare for months. This frightful exhibition, let it always be remembered, divided the world in perpetuity into two hostile sets of audience — the triumphant West and the defeated Muslim world, humiliated yet again. Had multiple channels been operational in India (they were not in 1991-92), would they have been cheering Western victory or Muslim defeat? It would have been bad form to pose this query then? Please note how times have changed and why the Supreme Court’s intervention is timely.

The Post 9/11 war on terror transformed itself into a crusade against Islam. Journalistic restraint became a casualty. Geraldo Rivera of Fox News flourished a revolver in front of a TV camera in October 2001 in Afghanistan. “Should I see Osama bin Laden anywhere, I shall finish him off with this,” said he, his finger on the trigger. The copycat Indian media, now in a phase of rapid expansion, picked up every inflection.

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Muslim education in India: Need for private and public sector investment

These are troubling findings that frame the continuing needs of Muslims and others in the weaker sections. What should be done to address those needs?




Muslim education in India

Muslim education in India: Eminent columnist Swaminathan A. Aiyar called upon Wakf boards and wealthy Muslims to finance the development of “a string of world-class education institutions” that would attract foreign students and Indian Hindus as well. His article was written in response to Member of Parliament Asaduddin Owaisi’s recommendation for “government scholarships for all” to deal with the “literacy and attendance gaps” of Muslims and other communities.

The proposal was driven by his opinion that “the quality of government schools is so poor that giving more government scholarships will do little for Muslims or any other community”. And, that “Christians have long created their own educational institutions of excellence”.

There is no argument that Christians have created good educational institutions — as have Muslims and others I might add — and that government-supported schools need to be improved. But, a programme of the scope and nature that the article suggests would do nothing to address the very real problem that Owaisi has identified.

That problem is that Muslims and others in the weaker sections still lag far behind those in other religious groups in terms of their development. The development deficit occurs at points all along the educational continuum from pre-school through higher education.

The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 disclosed this “development deficit” for minorities in many areas. The report resulted in the creation of an across the board programme for the development of minorities in India.

Some progress has been made since then but much remains to be done:

  • In the 2011 census, the overall literacy rate for Muslims went up substantially to 68.5 per cent from 59.1 per cent in 2001. The rate for Muslim females was much lower at not quite 52 per cent.
  • A study released by the US India Policy Institute at the end of 2013 states that since 2006, “… the literacy level and the quantum of improvements for Muslims were modest compared to other populations.”
  • That same study showed that only 11 per cent of Muslims in India pursue higher education compared to a national average of approximately 19 per cent and that participation in the “general category of Muslims in higher education” had actually declined by 1.5 per cent for the period studied.
  • The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO)’s 75th round report cited by MP Owaisi showed that 22 per cent of Muslim girls aged 3 to 35 have never enrolled in a formal educational course.

These are troubling findings that frame the continuing needs of Muslims and others in the weaker sections. What should be done to address those needs?

In my opinion, the answer must be a comprehensive and collaborative effort financed and supported through public and private sector investment.

That effort should improve educational opportunity and quality at all levels. Educational literacy should be the starting line and higher education of some form should be the finish line.

For students at the primary and secondary levels, the Indian government needs to continue to upgrade its educational improvement initiatives to ensure basic knowledge, skills and abilities in language, science, mathematics and technology. Although madarasas educate only between 2-4 per cent of Muslim children and youth, they need to modernize their curriculum and move away from Islam centric or Islamic-only education to a holistic approach that enables these students to integrate fully into Indian society.

Higher education should not be solely the province of four-year colleges or universities. It should include technical, vocational and professional education at the secondary and post-secondary levels.

Education in those areas provides avenues for participation in 21st-century careers, the competencies to compete in a global economy, and the capacity to contribute to lifting Muslims and those in the weaker sections out of poverty and deprivation.

I know from my personal involvement that Muslims are already making commitments to assist in providing educational opportunities for Muslims at all these levels. For example, the American Federation of Muslims of Indian origin supports hundreds of schools and scholarships for underprivileged Muslims and others throughout India.

The Duty Society of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) has numerous members who have focused on educational development for those in the weaker sections and placed an intensified organizational focus there in 2016, its 125th anniversary year.

I myself have supported AMU with initiatives that enhance higher educational opportunities for Muslims and others including the funding of a new Management Complex, an Entrepreneurship Center, and an auditorium for the Mass Communications Department. At the dedication of the Frank and Debbie Islam Management Complex, I said, “From this Management Complex will come the future leaders who will make India and the world a better place. It will be an educational empowerment zone.”

I have had a lifelong passion and commitment to improving girls’ access to and participation in meaningful education. If we empower girls through education, they are most likely to control their own destiny. Education prepares the girl to become a change agent. Too many families are trapped in poverty because of lack of education. With her own education, the girl who becomes a woman and a mother can educate and equip her children to escape that trap. This is why my wife Debbie and I have also committed to support the development of a technical school for women in Azamgarh UP. Those women graduates will make invaluable contributions to making India and the world a better place as well.

Addressing the development needs of Muslims and others in the weaker sections is a strategic investment. It is a hand-up and not a hand-out. Those who get that hand-up will extend their hands to help others up. As a result, the return on these public and private investments will be exponential for the Indian economy and society.

(The writer is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal)

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