A tough road ahead: Balancing the environment and the economy amid the COVID-19 crisis

A tough road ahead: Balancing the environment and the economy amid the COVID-19 crisis

In the brutal race of economic growth, the unprecedented and existential threat of COVID-19 has led to various profound changes across the globe. The pandemic has brought a widespread loss of jobs and livelihoods of millions by stalling economic activities.

The pandemic has outlined the pernicious consequences of ignoring expert warnings, of political delay, the combination of population growth and reduction in ecosystems and biodiversity, habitat destruction by humans, toxic pollution, and sacrificing human health and natural landscapes for the economy.

Recently, the Chief of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Inger Anderson stated that “nature is sending us a message that if we neglect the planet, we put our own well-being at risk”. In 2016, the UNEP pointed out that 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic and that these zoonotic diseases are closely interlinked with the health of ecosystems.

Environmental vicissitudes formed by the Coronavirus seen in India and across the world exhibited signs that nature is healing itself of the uninterrupted threats to its system by mankind.

For instance, the decrease in the discharge of industrial effluents and minimised human activities like solid waste disposal, consumption of water for only residential purposes, improve in AQI (Air Quality Index), etc. due to the lockdown has had a positive impact on the ecology.

It is pertinent to raise the question as to what will happen when this lockdown is over. How well can we adopt sustainable development by balancing the environment, economy and social aspects? Harmonizing one or the other has been a tough challenge, as the damage to the environment increases with rising population, inadequate sewage facilities leading to polluted water, unregulated growth etc.

The World Economic Forum in March 2020 published a report which highlighted that six out of the ten most polluted cities of the world are in India. Currently, India is ranked as the fifth most polluted country in the world.

India is a signatory to numerous international environmental instruments and has an impressive number of environmental legislations including the Environmental Protection Act, 1986, Forest Conservation Act, 1980, Water Prevention and Control of Pollution Act, 1974, Biological Diversity Act, 2002, Public Liability Insurance Act 1889 and National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 etc.

Moreover, India has a sizeable network of government offices, both at the national and state levels, that are established to implement these regulations.

However, these regulations have been criticised for focusing on the protection of humans rather than the protection of the environment. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India, in a report titled 'Performance Audit of Water Pollution in India’, had pointed out that the penalty for contravention of the Water Prevention and Control of Pollution Act, 1974 is too low. It was further highlighted that “costs of defiance, non-adherence and violations are lower than the costs of compliance”.

These regulations impose costs on businesses and households by requiring them to dispose of pollution in a responsible way. The Supreme Court of India applied the ‘public trust doctrine’ in the case of MC Mehta v. Kamal Nath and held that the State must act as a trustee and is under a legal duty to protect natural resources.

Therefore, it is inevitable to ask questions about how much of the India’s resources, wealth, energy and intellect are to be spent on this task of regulation and control. These resources meant for public use cannot be converted into private ownership. The public at large is the beneficiary of the natural resources. According to Article 48-A of the Indian Constitution, the State as a trustee has a duty to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country. There is a corresponding duty of the citizens under Article 51A(g).

The problem lies in India’s orientation towards environmental regulation. There has been no change in approach, ineffective infrastructure, policy hurdles causing time consumption, etc. The gaps in these ineffective rules, compliance and monitoring systems create vulnerability to the everyday effects of pollution, loss of access to resources, restrictions on mobility and fear of loss of property and livelihood.

A massive amount of over Rs. 4,800 crore has been spent on the rejuvenation of the river Ganga and its tributaries since 1986 till June 30, 2017, by Ganga Action Plan,1984. Later, the Indian government in 2014 launched the Namami Gange programme. According to the revised estimates 2018-19 in the interim Union Budget for 2019-20, Namami Gange was allotted Rs. 2,300 crore. Out of this, only Rs. 700 crore hs been utilised. As many as 261 projects were announced, but only 76 have been concluded. The total expenditure till date is Rs. 5,979, crore, which is barely 23 per cent of the Rs. 25,000-crore allocation.

The lack of institutional action along with time-consuming remedies results in increasing reliance on routes such as courts or street protests for seeking remedies.

For instance, despite mass agitation and numerous environmental law violations, resorts were built on two backwater islands namely Vettila Thuruthu and Nediyathuruthu, located in Vembanad Lake, Kerala. It was done due to the silence and inaction of the authorities in position.

Taking note of this, the Supreme Court Bench of Justices RF Nariman, Aniruddha Bose and V Ramasubramanian came to the rescue and in the case of Kapico Kerala Resorts Pvt. Ltd v. State Of Kerala & Ors. It upheld the order of Kerala High Court and ordered the demolition of the seven-star resort. This is a recent example which shows that judicial decisions are still creating and monitoring environmental regulations.

The present model of economic growth is unsustainable because the costs incurred to fulfil capacities are not added earlier, and they outweigh the perceived savings at the time of installing them. For example, cities are lacking in sufficient treatment capacity, but the sewage treatment plants that exist are not maintained properly and therefore operating under-capacity. According to the United Nations, over 80% of the world’s wastewater and over 95% in some least developed countries is released into the environment without treatment.

The present status of nature requires us to adopt a more realistic path to cut off endless resource consumption by both government and citizens and rethink about the implementation of the laws, improving compliance, and better outcomes of regulations. With a global population nearing 10 billion, the UNEP chief is categorical that 2020 is “a year when we will have to fundamentally re-shape our relationship with nature.”

These trying times requires that a balance of two important aspects - economy and environment - be maintained. It will not be easy, but it is always better to equip ourselves with a sound environmental management system and a clear commitment to facilitating the transition to carbon-neutral economies. The resilience and sustainability of the environment depend upon the present actions we take.

The authors are lawyers at Supreme Court of India and Allahabad High Court.

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