In India, God Is No Environmentalist

The country's landscape is ravaged by plastics and environmental collapse seems imminent. And yet religion appears to often be on the wrong side of the issue.

Dumpster in India
Dumpster in India
C.P. Rajendran


BANGALORE — Does the fear of god motivate people to protect environmental resources? The lessons I learned from my journey across Himachal Pradesh a few months ago taught me that religious beliefs and environmental consciousness have a negative correlation in India.

On one day of my travel, I happened to be in Manikaran, a small town to the north of Kasol near the High Himalaya. Geologically, this is a unique site where the Indian and Asian tectonic plates converge deep underground, generating heat and melting rocks. The water around these rocks then flows through fractures in the latter and shoots up as jets above the surface.

Such locations are considered holy in India's religious traditions, and Manikaran is no exception: It is endowed with a Hindu temple as well as a gurudwara, a place of worship for Sikhs. As is usual with such places, businessmen have developed a market for religious tourism centered on them. These days, the people that visit Manikaran leave behind a train of organic and inorganic waste along a majestic stream that snakes its way through from the snowy peaks of the Himalaya.

But why is a place considered holy by two religions treated so badly? The people who would insist on maintaining clean spaces within Hindu devotional centers don't see it fit to extend the same civil courtesy to the world at large, and we see the effects of this throughout the country. It's possible to make a similar complaint about the ineffective management of waste generated during massive religious festivals such as the famous Kumbh Mela pilgrimage.

What you see in Manikaran makes a pathetic commentary of this "effective plastic waste management."

But what is comical is that a report on the initiative by the Government of Himachal Pradesh, published under the theme ‘environment" by NITI Aayog, makes a ridiculous statement: that "the Sustainable Plastic Waste Management Plan is an innovative and simple yet highly effective solution that has not only alerted the community about the menace of plastic and the need for sustained waste management practices but also set up a robust mechanism for its achievement."

What you see in Manikaran makes a pathetic commentary of this "effective plastic waste management" — and is yet another example of the fondness of governments agencies for hunky-dory reports that have no relation to reality on the ground.

Manikaran — Photo: balu

As you come down along the mountainous roads of Himachal and then Uttaranchal, you'd be blessed to see a trail of plastic mounds on the sides following you all the way. Shortly before you reach the heart of the national capital, these mounds have a crescendo until the pinnacle of environmental malfeasance in Ghazipur village, where a tower of garbage — now 65 m high — lords over the human settlement around it, forcing the people there to battle for survival every day. If this is happening right under the noses of the country's most powerful people, it's no surprise that the situation elsewhere in the country is equally bad. Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata may not host landfills higher than the one in Ghazipur but it would seem they are trying.

If we aspire to belong in a techno-savvy society, the country should also be adept at finding solutions to our rapidly deteriorating environmental conditions. We are fast closing in on a point of no-return where environmental upkeep is concerned. As Lori Garver, the former deputy NASA administrator, recently said on the space agency's efforts to put a woman on the Moon by 2024, "The impossible problem today is not the Moon. And it's not Mars. It's our home planet." There is much truth in this statement (and room for debate). If we can celebrate the technological feats of Chandrayaan 2, our lunar expedition, we must also expect that our garbage problem is solvable.

The country ranks 178 out of 180 on environmental performance.

During Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992, the phrase "It's the economy, stupid" was very popular in the U.S. This is now valid in India as well but so is another one: "It's the environment, stupid." Indeed, India's environmental deterioration has been stupendous, and now poisons people and their livelihoods en masse. The country ranks 178 out of 180 on environmental performance, barely off the bottom of the list, according to a biennial report prepared by Yale and Columbia universities in 2018. India's Centre for Science and Environment released a report earlier this year that said:

"The burden of solid waste is becoming unmanageable. In fact, 79 major protests against unsanitary landfills and dump yards have been recorded in 22 states in the past three years. Maharashtra, which registered 16 major protests, leaves 43% of its waste unprocessed. While India claims to process 96% of its biomedical waste, eight states and union territories have defaulting hospitals. The country has also recorded a 56% increase in the number of hazardous-waste generating industries between 2009 and 2016-17. At the same time, most of these industries are not properly maintaining their waste inventory, as mandated by the law."

Of all the waste we produce, plastic products seem to be dealing the most damage to freshwater, estuarine and marine environments. To contain this menace, authorities will need to improve all aspects of waste management on a war footing. One study estimated that 4.8-12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste entered the oceans in 2010 alone. This impacts indigenous marine resources in multiple ways — fish consume them and are killed, disrupting the ecosystem — and erodes coastal landscapes.

Plastic waste, including plastic bags, are currently dumped with other domestic solid waste in landfills. Instead, they would be better off separated at the primary level and channeled for recycling. However, none of India's major cities can claim decent separation centres.

The government must immediately devise a ‘National Action Plan" that will indicate measures to increase the rate of solid waste collected, recycled and reused. This strategy could reduce the need to manufacture new plastic bags and throwaway plastic items. The plan should also ensure all major urban centers set up facilities to efficiently recycle solid waste while helping change our behavior to adopt greener lifestyles. The government could also evaluate the feasibility of forming environmental protection groups to oversee these efforts and manage the production of solid waste.

The alternative is dire. The country's landscape is already being ravaged by plastics. We are on the verge of environmental collapse.

C.P. Rajendran is a professor of geodynamics at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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