Words by Janvi Poddar
India: [Origin – Sanskrit] ‘River Indus’
India is a country that derives its name from the river that brought its first civilizations prosperity; it is a country shielded by the world’s mightiest mountain range in the north and a deep blue ocean in the south, a country that is home to 16% of the world’s population, 7.6% of all mammals, 12.6% of all birds, and 6% of all plant flowering species. It is now also a country rife with climatic chaos, with coastlines and islands that are submerging in its ocean, heatwaves and floods that are killing its youth, and landslides in its mountains that are wiping out decades of development. And yet, the country’s elected officials do nothing.
In fact, they do more harm than good. In 2020, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), the country’s apex wildlife protection body, de-notified over 1000 sq km of forest land. With every passing day, they strip away the special status of more protected areas, wildlife sanctuaries, and national parks, all in the name of economic growth. In doing so, they hide behind the false and often fake testimonials of environmental ‘experts’ who claim that the government is helping the country. In many cases, the diversion of forest land is for development purposes, most frequently road-building – often through the middle of biodiversity-dense forest areas.
In Andaman and Nicobar Islands, one of the country’s prime biodiversity hotspots, the decision to take away sanctuary status has destroyed one of the largest nesting grounds for leatherback sea turtles on the subcontinent. India witnessed a rapid population decline of 17 turtle species and countless other flora and fauna in recent decades.
It is now a known fact that if we are to have any hope of making it out of the climate crisis, we need to prioritize natural restoration – we need to rewild the planet. So far, India is miserably failing at this. Environmental laws and policies, some dating back to the colonial era, cannot keep up with the times. While India’s supreme court recognizes the need to protect nature, this sentiment is lacking everywhere else. The NBWL has not convened since 2014 to discuss the state of wildlife. Not surprisingly, the year coincides with the election of the board’s new chairman, Narendra Modi. The government continues to lie to the media and the international community about their efforts to address the climate crisis and become net-zero.
Simultaneously, India continues to be the third biggest consumer of oil, and while the world battles an energy crisis, India is exploiting the Russia-Ukraine crisis to get it cheaper. Mr. Modi’s government claims that India has the right to do so, because we put national interests above the world’s. But what are these national interests? What about the interests of the citizens of Delhi who inhale the smoke of the millions of tons of coal they burn? Or the interests of the farmers that have lost their livelihoods to floods and droughts? The fact is India is losing its fight against the climate crisis. As a country of over 1.3 billion people, if we lose this fight so does the world.
If we are to have a fighting chance, there is an imminent need for the international community and for Indians to hold its government responsible. To win back democracy and ignite a fight against the climate crisis, the unopposed authority that rules this nation needs to be opposed. International and domestic efforts to fight corruption, extreme inequality, and natural exploitation are necessary.
Political change would, however, be useless without an economic revolution. India, much like the rest of the world, needs to implement new regenerative economic thinking that aligns with the sustainable, utopian vision of the 21st century which many young people, including myself, dare to have. My vision of India aligns with Jawaharlal Nehru’s, Independent India’s first prime minister. It is a vision where “the boundaries of democracy [are] widened to include economic equality”. It is a vision of a country that looks beyond religion, caste, and gender. It is a vision that uplifts India’s unique and diverse geographical landscape, that harnesses the strengths of its natural systems and respects its boundaries. More immediately, it is a vision where pollution doesn’t kill thousands every year, where no family loses their home to climate change-induced floods.