A distinguishing mark of the Narendra Modi government is the determined manner in which it is diluting and scuttling India’s already weak environmental regulations in the name of promoting ‘fast-track clearances’ and rapid development. This is liable to further accelerate environmental destruction and degradation, and deprive underprivileged people of access to natural resources.

This will increase pollution and environmentally-related illnesses, and cause economic regression, not progress. According to the World Bank, India is annually losing a high 5.7 percent of its GDP to environmental degradation – more than its income growth. (http://www.worldbank.org)

As soon as the Modi government came to power, it changed the composition of the Expert Appraisal Committee, a body of specialists to examine projects for their environmental impact, and the Forest Advisory Committee, which decides on the diversion of forest land to mining, irrigation and industry. It also reconstituted the National Board for Wildlife, reducing independent experts from the mandated eight to one.

Within the first 100 days, these committees cleared 240 of 325 pending projects in coal-mining, roads, power plants and oil exploration, diverting over 7,000 hectares of forest land, and sanctioning a road through the Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary, the sole breeding site of flamingos. They also allowed oil and gas companies to expand capacity without environmental scrutiny.

Within 11 days of taking over, the new environment minister lifted the moratorium on further industrialisation from eight ‘critically polluted industrial clusters’, including Singrauli (Uttar Pradesh-Madhya Pradesh) and Vapi (Gujarat), highly-poisoned areas where cancer and neurological disorders are rampant. His ministry allowed coal mines with an annual capacity of less than 16 million tonnes to expand without conducting a public hearing. Irrigation projects affecting a sizable 2,000 hectares will no longer require environmental clearance.

The government is trying to bypass a crucial provision of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which recognises the rights of indigenous tribes over forest lands and requires their “prior informed consent”. This is a vicious assault on some of India’s most deprived and poorest people.

Perhaps the worst part of this ‘silent war on the environment’ is the just-submitted report of a committee headed by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian, to amend key environmental laws. It has recommended fast-track clearances for power, mining and ‘linear’ projects like roads; self-certification of compliance by project promoters (who are notorious for misleading/false reports); and more project clearance at the state level.

The committee has recommended an umbrella law to create new national and state-level regulators and abolish separate air and water pollution acts. It wants administrative tribunals instead of the judicial NGT to hear appeals, and has redefined ‘no-go’ forest areas where mining is banned.

To combat this veritable assault on the environment, India needs a strong people’s movement that fights against destructive projects, advocates an alternative model of development, and demands popular participation in environmental decision-making which is bureaucratically-driven and captured by industrial interests.

Nobody has made a greater contribution to building such a movement than Medha Patkar who turns 60 today. Patkar is best known globally as the leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, one of the greatest ecological mobilisations anywhere in the world. She is also the founder of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, comprising over 250 grassroots groups active in numerous states on a range of civil-political-social rights issues.

The NBA was set up in 1985 to oppose the displacement of lakhs of people by the Sardar Sarovar project and other giant dams on the River Narmada, and demand their just rehabilitation. The agitation, relentless but peaceful, highlighted the projects’ ecological, social and economic irrationality and horrendous human costs, and led to the World Bank pulling out of Sardar Sarovar, and the creation of an independent complaints mechanism in the Bank – a major gain for the global ecology movement.

Patkar was maligned, physically attacked, dragged into fighting fake cases, and demonised by her opponents, especially the Gujarat government. But she took the fight to the people through vigorous protests, fasts, and education campaigns, solidly backed by in-depth documentation of the disastrous impact of the dam projects, including the inevitable loss of livelihoods and extensive destruction of natural resources and archaeological heritage.

Patkar never lost sight of the central issue of equity: the Narmada projects would benefit the privileged, and further impoverish the poor. As it became clear that the projects’ magnitude precluded an accurate assessment of environmental damage, and that genuine rehabilitation would be impossible, the NBA moved to challenging their very basis and claims to ‘development’. It began to define an alternative humane model of development.

This received support from a galaxy of activists, writers, jurists, artistes, academicians, public intellectuals and scientists, and enthused large numbers of youth and students into joining solidarity struggles.

The NBA proposed alternatives including smaller dams, and secured assurances that the authorities would undertake no further dam construction until there was prior, informed and just rehabilitation of those who would be displaced, and a full environmental impact assessment was carried out. The government promised to make a stage-by-stage assessment simultaneously with the construction. This promise was comprehensively betrayed.

A credible, integrated environmental impact assessment was never made for what became India’s costliest dam project. Sardar Sarovar’s irrigation costs per acre are so high that all agriculture would become unviable if the farmer were to pay even a fraction of the interest charges. The promise that parched Kutch and Saurashtra would get water from the project has only been realised tokenistically.

Even the Supreme Court let the NBA down by negating its own orders on freezing construction before rehabilitation. This was a black-mark in India’s judicial history. Yet, several studies, including a recent one by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), show that the NBA was right in opposing Sardar Sarovar. Even in conventional cost-benefit terms the project is a failure.

Patkar still continues to fight for rehabilitation. Meanwhile, the NAPM has evolved into a formidable force which takes up a spectacular range of issues like the right to information, the cause of unorganised-unprotected sector workers, housing for the urban poor, the rights to food, social security and pensions, disaster relief, and decentralised development focused on local communities and resources.

Patkar is to be found in people’s struggles everywhere in India, whether against evictions in Mumbai’s slums, against Special Economic Zones in numerous places, in defence of artisanal fishermen’s rights, water rights (against Coca-Cola plants) in Kerala or Uttar Pradesh, tribals’ rights in Orissa, or the fights against land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal.

Medha Patkar comes from a Socialist family background and joined the Rashtra Seva Dal, the only counter to the RSS the Left created, in Maharashtra. Her decisive political grooming happened in TISS, where she studied social work. She soon got immersed in work among tribal and peasant communities.

A Gandhian ascetic, Patkar represents the high noon of commitment to people’s causes. She lost the last Lok Sabha election as an Aam Aadmi Party candidate. But her contribution – whether to the new rehabilitation and resettlement policy under discussion, to raising the issue of people-centred equitable development, or to inspiring and empowering millions of underprivileged people – will have a lasting impact.