India’s Deadly Climate-Change & Environment Crisis & What Modi 3.0 Must Do (But Hasn’t Ever)

Prerna Singh Bindra and Krithika Sampath
01 Jul 2024 14 min read  Share

Hundreds died in the most intense and prolonged heat waves on record, even as fire, storm and flash flood swept India, one of the countries most vulnerable to global warming. It is second only to Brazil in deforestation rates, rapidly decimating even legally protected areas. Indian cities rank high in polluted air and sink to the bottom in environment and livability indices. Yet, the environment crisis was not part of electoral discourse. As Narendra Modi’s third prime ministerial term begins, our five-point agenda offers a must-do list to secure India’s ecology, economy and lives.

Record floods in Delhi on 28 June 2024 came days after a record heat wave and a water crisis, a month’s worth of rain cascading down in a single day, killing at least 11 people / SHANTUM SINGH

Cambridge (UK) and Hyderabad: At least 140 died, though many more may have. At least 40,000 were struck by heatstroke. At least one heat-related illness was reported in 45% of households. Birds, bats and monkeys dropped dead from trees, and people died on the streets.

This was a snapshot of an intense heat wave that swept India’s northern plains and parts of the peninsula and the east during India’s 43-day-long general elections of 2024. 

During the same period, Manipur suffered hail storms, rainstorms and devastating flash flood. Forest fires raged across Uttarakhand, while the neighbouring mountain state of Himachal Pradesh was deluged with unseasonal rains, wreaking havoc on its main export and livelihood source: apples.  

Extreme weather is the new normal in new India. Heat waves linked to climate change in South Asia are now 45 times more likely, according to a global study released in May 2024.  

Even as polling staff succumbed to heatstroke, with 33 dying on just the last day of elections in Uttar Pradesh alone, India’s most urgent issue—the environment crisis—was not on the election agenda.  

While climate change, air pollution and other environmental issues were mentioned  in the manifesto of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—and in those of other national parties—clear strategies and commitments were missing. 

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government’s environmental agenda has been the opposite of supportive or beneficial. Environment ministers have declared laws and policies that safeguard the environment and protect forests and wildlife as “roadblocks” and “hurdles to development”. 

Dredging on the Sahastradhara river in Uttarakhand’s Doon valley. Even as landslides increased 2900% over five years in a fragile Himalayan state ravaged by deforestation and construction, the government of chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami lifted environmental safeguards and made mining easier, two months before state elections in 2022/ REENU PAUL

Many protective laws were changed to make it easy for forests to be cleared for industry and infrastructure (here and here). Changes to the very things that mitigate the effects of climate change and pollution preceded Modi’s decade in office, but his governments over the decade greatly accelerated them.  

Most states have similar attitudes. 

For instance, in a recent letter to the environment ministry, the Goa government asked that 36 villages and adjacent forests be excluded from an eco-sensitive zone because “forests can be shifted from one place to another” but “natural resources will continue to remain as is where is basis (sic)”, The Times of India reported on 24 June 2024.

Laws Weakened When Most Needed

The annual cost of environmental degradation in India, by some estimates, stands at Rs 3.75 lakh crore ($80 billion), equivalent to 5.7% of gross domestic product. Put another way, that is more than the union government’s education, health and housing budgets combined.   

A government that places Bharatiya sanskar at the centre of all that it does, would do well to remember that India’s culture is deeply rooted in nature (here , here  and here).  

These inimical changes came as studies highlighted India’s vulnerability to climate change, with extreme weather events threatening public health, food  and financial security. 

Three years ago in 2021, UNICEF warned that 17 of 20 people in India were vulnerable to extreme hydrological and meteorological or “hydromet” disasters.

To get a sense of the scale, India witnessed extreme weather events almost every day in the first nine months of 2023, during which time 3,208 people were killed and 2.09 million hectares of farm land damaged: larger than the size of the Kashmir Valley and Goa.

Nearly half of marginal rice and wheat farmers surveyed reported crop losses from the last extreme weather event to strike them, according to an annual survey of Indian marginal farmers released in 2023.

Unprecedented burdens on public health, agriculture, and other socio-economic and cultural systems, “climate change-induced heatwaves in India can hinder or reverse the country’s progress” in fulfilling India’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), ranging from economic growth to combating ill health to ending poverty, according to a 2023 study by Cambridge University researchers.

In August 2022, Hausabai Jhole, of Mahadarwaja Pada hamlet in the northwestern Maharashtra district of Nashik, collected groundwater seeping from floor of the drying well into which she had descended/ JYOTI THAKUR

More than 90% of Indians were made more vulnerable to food shortages, public health issues and increased risk of death by deadly heat waves sparked by climate change in 2022, the study said. 

Currently, more than 800 million Indians currently receive food rations, although 100 million more need them but do not get them because the government uses outdated poverty data, as Article 14 has reported. Extreme weather can only expand these numbers.

‘Of Our Own Making’

Like many experts (here, here and here), historian and writer Ramchandra Guha argued on 1 June 2024 that India’s environmental challenges, while exacerbated by climate change, were “of our own making”.

India ranks  176 among 180 countries in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) 2024, measured by Yale and Columbia universities, calculated on the basis of various indices, such as ecosystem vitality, biodiversity habitat, species protection index, wetland loss, air, water quality and waste management.

Though India routinely refutes such ranking, the crisis is self-evident, with trees, which offer critical protection against rising heat and sequester carbon, being cut in the millions. 

India’s deforestation levels are second only to Brazil. Between 2013-2023, it lost 1.49 million hectares of trees—more than five times the size of Goa—with 95% of this natural forests, which, according to a 2019 study in the journal Nature, are 40 times more effective than plantations in sequestering carbon and providing other ecosystem services.

Protected Areas and their Eco-Sensitive Zones have not been spared either: Between 2014-18, 24,329 hectares—an area twice the size of Chandigarh—was “diverted” for highways, mines, railway lines, dams and other such activities.  

The Parsa East & Kanta Basan coal block allotted to Rajasthan’s state power utility in Chhattisgarh. The mine has been operated by the Adani Group since 2012. About 15,000 trees were cut in December for the mine, in addition to 81,000 cut since 2012/ MOHAMMAD SARTAJ ALAM

The loss of such pristine habitat endangers wildlife, such as the endemic Great Indian Bustard  and Lesser florican, of which less than 150 and ~264 respectively remain, their once wide range shrunk to tiny patches in Rajasthan and Gujarat. The hangul too has been nearly exterminated, with fewer than 300 of this endemic deer surviving in Dachigam National Park on the edges of Srinagar.

The 2023 State of India’s Birds report found that 19% of 942 bird species studied were of conservation concern, with declines in nearly 60% of 348 species studied over 25 years and in 40% of 359 species studied since 2015.

Biodiversity is critical to ecosystems, in particular making forests resilient, allowing them to withstand external pressures or recover from disturbances, such as environmental changes or pests and diseases.  

Deforestation and biodiversity loss directly affects India’s well-being and is linked to the rising incidences of zoonotic diseases—transferred from animals to humans, often when forests are cut—such as deadly and recurring outbreaks of Nipah and Kyasanur forest diseases and the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, which killed millions globally and had devastating health, economic and societal impacts.  

Equally lethal to public health are poor and polluted environments, made worse by loosened pollution-control laws. While this loosening preceded the Modi era, which began in 2014, these practices were accelerated over the last 10 years of two governments that he led. 

Eighty-three of the world’s 100 most polluted cities are in India, all of which exceed the World Health Organisation’s air quality guidelines by more than 10 times,  according to a 2023  report by IQ Air, which tracks air quality worldwide. About 1.26 million or 17.8% of all deaths in India in 2019 were linked to air pollution. 

Water pollution is another deadly killer, with contaminated water claiming about 200,000 lives every year due to contaminated water, according to a 2018 NITI Aayog report

Here are five ways in which Modi’s third term in office can address the damage.

A 5-Point Agenda To Safeguard India’s Environment  

1. Repeal Forest & Environment Law Dilutions

Problem: India’s strong legal and policy framework for environment, forests and wildlife protection is being systematically dismantled and diluted, accelerating significantly over the past decade. An example: the Forest Conservation Amendment Act 2023  (FCAA), which redefined forests, excluding them from legal protection, so they could be rapidly handed over to industry, infrastructure and other non-forest uses, thus undermining the objective of the parent legislation Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 to check deforestation. 

The  Biological Diversity Act 2002, the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972,  Forests Rights Act 2006 and other laws, rules and policies that regulate air and water pollution, protect wetlands and coasts have been similarly emasculated. For instance, the Environment Impact Assessment Notification of 2006, which restricts polluting and damaging projects has been amended 100 amendments—to the detriment of the environment—between 2018-2023.

Action: The new government can scientifically and impartially assess—taking independent institutions, domain experts and environmental lawyers on board—amendments made to environment law and policy and repeal those that weaken and water down environmental safeguards. Such laws need to be strengthened, and their implementation ensured. 

Protect Protected Areas & Key Wildlife Habitats 

Problem: India has committed to protect its tigers and other wildlife, constitutionally as well as in various international fora. Yet, protected areas, which cover just about 5% of India’s terrestrial area, are being whittled away brazenly. 

Between 2014 and 2023, 97.7% of proposals to “divert” land from national parks, sanctuaries and their eco-sensitive zones were approved by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), a statutory body mandated to  regulate development activities in such areas, according to an analysis by former Indian Forest Service Officer, Prakriti Srivastava. 

The Sharavathi Valley Lion-tailed Macaque Sanctuary in Karnataka is one of the last existing habitats of an endangered primate/ CREATIVE COMMONS

Projects were approved in haste without credible impact studies or due diligence, and even through virtual meetings, allowing for no room for informed  discussions and debates, detailed scrutiny, site visits, opinions of experts and other stakeholders. Examples include dam approvals within Palamu (Jharkhand) and Panna (Madhya Pradesh) tiger reserves, clearing highways and railway lines in global biodiversity hotspots, such as Mollem National Park in Goa, a road in Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat, threatening India's sole flamingo-nesting site. 

The NBWL erased entire protected areas, such as Galathea Bay Sanctuary in Nicobar island, an important nesting site of leatherback sea turtles for a mega-development project that will include ports, townships and special economic zones. Since 2014, experts have said, instead of adhering to its conservation mandate, the Board has become a clearing house for the decimation of wildlife and its habitat. 

Action: Protected areas must be regarded as they once were, sacrosanct or “no-go areas” for damaging infrastructure and other activities, with protection to key wildlife habitats and corridors. A moratorium on wildlife clearances would help. Any decision to liquidate an important wildlife habitat and forests must be preceded by following the law, including site visits and studies for multi-season impacts.   

2. Transform Governance, Ensure Accountability

Problem: India’s environmental governance failures are rooted in the absence of accountability and transparency of the nodal ministry, the ministry of environment, forests and climate change.

Contrary to its mandate of safeguarding the environment, the ministry has hastily cleared proposals, experts have often noted, inimical to the environment and forests and subverted or rewritten laws, Supreme Court orders and the Constitution to serve private business, while ignoring the larger public interest. 

Decisions are opaque, and violate the principles of Indian democracy: for instance, forest law amendments proposed in 2023 were open to the public for two weeks and communicated only in English and Hindi. Despite over 1,300 representations, dissent from within a joint Parliamentary committee appointed to look into these amendments—and opposition from states through assembly resolutions—the ministry accepted no objections. The FCAA sailed through both houses of parliament without significant debate, without a change, ignoring concerns, including from a joint parliamentary committee considering the proposed law. 

Projects are cleared against scientific advice and by exploiting legal loopholes, such as the expansion of the Char Dham highway through the geologically fragile Himalayas, which lead to frequent landslides and the  collapse of a tunnel, in which 41 workers were trapped for 17 days. 

Flagship programmes of the government have failed. A glaring example is the Namami Gange project—despite spending over ₹20,000 crores in ten years, it remains one of the most polluted rivers in the world, with water quality levels for dangerous bacteria at least 40 times above safe levels, with water unfit even for irrigation. 

Similar mismanagement plagues projects meant to green the land, such as those under the Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA), a statutory body responsible for managing funds collected from developmental projects that cut forests. CAMPA funds, Rs 23,600 crore in 2012, primarily intended for afforestation and conservation activities, have been misused for construction and vehicle purchases according to a 2013 Comptroller and Auditor General of India report. Failed and ghost plantations and the lack of information in government portals cast doubt on its implementation and effectiveness. 

Action: Though a larger governance issue,  accountability is essential,  especially given the MoEFCC’s culpability in diverting and destroying forests, affecting the lives and livelihood of millions who depend on forests. The  environment ministry and various ‘independent’ bodies, such as the  NBWL (Environment) Expert Appraisal Committee; and independent institutions, such as the National Green Tribunal, need to be held accountable and restored to perform their primary function as effective watchdogs.  Equally crucial is implementing rigorous and regular monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. 

3. Make Cities Liveable

Problem: India is urbanising rapidly, with  over a third of its 1.4 billion living in cities that are increasingly overcrowded, decrepit, filthy, polluted and crumbling; lacking adequate housing, clean water, public transport, electricity,  open spaces and trees. 

Indian cities are overrun with garbage, congested traffic, are unequal, unsafe and disaster prone—drowning in floods in the monsoon and roasting in urban heat islands in summers that are growing hotter by the year. Indian cities are clustered in the bottom half—with Bengaluru ranked the “least liveable”—in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2022 Global Liveability Index

With half of India’s population expected to be living in urban areas by 2050, confronting the urban crisis is not a choice but an urgent necessity. Experts have said that the government will need to abandon unplanned, haphazard  development practices to address these challenges.

Action: India’s cities have to be reimagined, but not the way the Modi government began in 2015 its Rs 1.70 lakh crore ($20.39 billion)—and controversial—Smart City project spanning 100 cities. Instead, as many have pointed out (here and here) coordinated plans to tackle pollution, involving a curb on polluting industries, waste management, regulations and taxes on car ownership, accompanied by extensive public transport well-integrated with tree-lined roads for cycling and walking. Urban forests, green spaces, river fronts, the natural features of a city—such as the Aravallis in Gurugram, Bengaluru's lakes, Kolkata’s wetlands and ponds—must be preserved and restored.  

4. Water Conservation & Management

Problem: India faces the worst water crisis in its history, with about 600 million people suffering high to extreme water stress. Nearly 70% of India’s water is contaminated, posing severe health hazards, including cancer.  

Climate change and extreme weather events exacerbate the crisis—rapidly melting Himalayan glaciers are expected to accelerate the frequency and severity of natural hazards and increase water scarcity. Unusually low snowfall in 2024 in the Hindu Kush portion of the Himalayas is likely to impact crops and livelihoods of over 600 million people living in the Gangetic river basin, according to a June 2024 study from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, an intergovernmental organisation.

The base of Kashmir's Harmukh Glacier in August 2023 revealed only patches of snow. The region's glaciers are retreating faster than those in other Himalayan regions/ RAASHID ANDRABI

The other dire threat is rapidly depleting groundwater levels: over 60% of irrigated agriculture and 85% of drinking water needs depend on groundwater, vital for food and water security, but greatly overexploited, with some regions such as parts of the Gangetic plains and  Punjab reaching a tipping point, meaning recharge is difficult. The water crisis also haunts most cities, such as Bengaluru, which faced its lowest water levels in 41 years in the summer of 2024, causing taps to run dry even in the poshest colonies. 

Action: As with most environmental problems, there is no single answer. Addressing the water crisis requires a mix of short- and long-term solutions, outlined in a 2019 report of the government think tank, the NITI Aayog. It recommends a shift from investment in  mega “infrastructural projects to grassroot level activities” and decentralised and participatory interventions. 

Rainwater harvesting is the way forward, and must be incentivised and made mandatory, as experts have repeatedly stressed (here and here). In June 2024, environmentalist Vimlendu Jha tweeted that Delhi—grappling with an acute water shortage—could potentially harvest 900 billion litres of water annually, which would meet the city’s water needs and ease frequent waterlogging.  

Equal focus is required on management and protection of watersheds and catchment areas and ensuring minimum e-flows in rivers-in other words  maintaining the natural flow of rivers vital  to retain its native ecology and perform ecosystem services. Wetlands, lakes and natural drains need to be conserved and rejuvenated, not concretised, so groundwater can be recharged. 

Mega hydel and river-linking projects, often questioned by hydrologists and environmentalists (here, here and here), must be reassessed and reconsidered, taking into account ecological and social costs. It would also help if rivers, including those worshipped by millions, were not treated as giant trash cans with untreated sewage poured in. 

The agenda we have outlined is seemingly ambitious. But it serves as a starting point for India’s road to recovery for an ecologically and financially secure future. Far from being a hurdle, there can be no lasting growth without a healthy environment. 

In his first speech after being elected to his third term, Modi bowed to the constitution calling it, “our guiding light’”. His government may do well to remember Article 48A, “The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country."

(Prerna Singh  Bindra is a former member of the National Board for Wildlife and Krithika Sampath is a conservation researcher.)

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