Covid-19: Environment impact, law and lessons to be learnt

The countries across the globe are facing unprecedented impact on humans as well as businesses due to outbreak of coronavirus/ COVID-19. It was declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This pandemic has resulted in ramping down of the human activates which also affected the business cycle. Following the outbreak of the […]

The countries across the globe are facing unprecedented impact on humans as well as businesses due to outbreak of coronavirus/ COVID-19. It was declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This pandemic has resulted in ramping down of the human activates which also affected the business cycle. Following the outbreak of the coronavirus, many countries had adopted the policy of complete lockdown that brought the world to a standstill resulting in financial slowdown across the world in all sectors. Although the impact of the virus on humans cannot be ascertain as of now but it has definitely emerged as a boon for our environment. The climate experts predicted that the greenhouse gas emissions could drop to proportions which had seen never before since World War II. This outcome is mainly due to the policy of lockdown and social distancing adopted by the governments in wake of the pandemic. There have been record breaking emissions in carbon and nitrogen oxides. In India, people are breathing the cleanest air ever since our Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the first nationwide lockdown in March, 2020.

 The nature is healing itself from all our cruel acts in a way which we had never seen in history. It is regenerating itself. Carbon Brief (CB) published that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted  energ y use worldwide, which could cut carbon emissions by an estimated 5.5% of 2019’s global total [1 ]. That means the coronavirus crisis is so far “triggering the largest ever annual fall in carbon dioxide emissions in 2020, more than during any previous economic crisis or period of war.” We have witnessed few vital environmental changes seen in India after the Covid-19 lockdown. The Capital city has undergone a significant reduction in air pollution level after the announcement of nationwide lockdown. Cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Lucknow saw their average Air Quality Index (AQI) staying within two digits. In nearly all other big Indian cities, emission of nitrogen oxide (NO2 ) had reduced to a significant level. Amid COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of flamingos have gathered in the city of Navi Mumbai. This year there was a massive increase in their numbers. Due to the reduction in water pollution, the South Asian River Dolphins have been spotted at various Ganga Ghats of Kolkata. On 3rd April 2020, residents of Jalandhar city in Punjab also witnessed the cleaner air, as they woke up to a view of the Dhauladhar mountain range, which had never been seen in normal times, considering the longer distance of more than 200 kilometres between the two places. As the power plant operations have come to a grinding halt, a significant change has been noted in water. The rivers like Ganga and Yamuna have seen significant improvement since the enforcement of a nationwide lockdown for which purpose the government was spending crores of rupees. The water of Ganga and Yamuna has become much cleaner in Delhi, Prayagraj and Haridwar. It is assumed that due to the lockdown, the drainage of industrial waste into the river water has stopped and brought a significant change in the water quality. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the air around us was very toxic to breathe. Environmental degradation was happening fast due to the depletion of resources such as air, water and soil. But after the lockdown commenced to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19, there have been significant changes in the environment.

After a period of almost four months, countries are trying to revive the stalled economic activities. It is important to save the economy but yet it cannot be saved at cost of human life. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi also prepared a plan to exit the world’s biggest lockdown and revive stalled economic activity. Amid a nationwide lockdown, the government in the month of April, 2020 relaxed few  restrictions to allow e-commerce companies, transportation by roads, as well as restart port and air cargo operations. However, there is pressure on the government to push the economic growth and to mitigate the said pressure; the Indian government had relaxed the environmental standards and several protection laws. The government had approved several industrial projects and the Environmentalists in India are criticizing government moves to continue to approve major industrial projects, and to relax the nation’s environmental assessment rules, even as the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated public oversight reviews. “They are carrying on as if there is no health emergency, hosting meetings and taking decisions including on big ticket projects,” said Kanchi Kohli, an environmental governance expert with the Centre for Policy Research. In the month of April, 2020 the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change had approved opencast coal mining in reserve forest land that is a part of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve. According to a report of The logical Indian, a Right to Information (RTI) application filed by eastern Assam-based environmental activist Rohit Choudhury into the Tikok coal mining project in Dehing Patkai Elephant reserve in eastern Assam has revealed that a substantial chunk of “unbroken” forest land has already been mined and cleared. Further, amid this difficult time, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has gone ahead and issued a notification amending the land use of five plots for the Centre’s ambitious and controversial project to remake New Delhi’s Parliament district i.e. Central Vista project. [2 ] The Expert Appraisal committee of the Ministry of Environment had given a green nod to construction of the new Parliament building at a cost of Rs.920 crore approx. The Ministry of Environment in an attempt to revamp the fourteen years old EIA notification has also released the Draft Environment Impact Assessment notification, 2020 on 12th March, 2020.[3 ] However, even the new notification does not look to strengthen the regulatory processes or institutional mechanisms governing environmental clearance in India. The proposed changes could normalize approval of projects that went ahead without environmental clearance. The current version of EIA reduced the time allowed for public comment on assessments as it gives a minimum of 20 days of notice period which was previously 30 days. It also reduced the time period to complete the public-hearing process within 40 days, as opposed to the existing norm of 45 days. The draft was open for public comments till 30th June, 2020 which has now been extended till 11th August, 2020 by Hon’ble Delhi High Court. The draft reintroduces District Level Environment Assessment Authority (DEIAA) which was scrapped by NGT. The notification has been drafted with a view to ease development against the principles of sustainable development and it is in contradiction to several judgements of the courts. Further the Dibang Valley, a biodiversity hot spot in northeastern India, is threatened by a proposed hydropower dam. This area is well known for supporting 300 species of birds and 75 species of mammals.

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd on 15th April 2020 said that COVID-19 must not be used as an excuse to weaken environmental protection. After a number of governments announced that they are lowering environmental standards, suspending environmental monitoring requirements, reducing environmental enforcement, and restricting public participation he said that “In light of the global environmental crisis that predates COVID-19, these actions are irrational, irresponsible, and jeopardize the rights of vulnerable people.” The UN expert further said that “Such policy decisions are likely to result in accelerated deterioration of the environment and have negative impacts on a wide range of human rights including the rights to life, health, water, culture, and food, as well as the right to live in a healthy environment.”

 Hence, we need to understand that we cannot take the nature for granted and once the universe will come out of this pandemic, better implementation of the environmental, transport and industry regulations should be considered on priority basis to check the detrimental impacts of human activity on the environment. This pandemic is an alarming bell for all of us and it has shown us the true portrait of our resources and our administration. India requires a major environmental governance change which can make it as a true ecological champion in this time of unprecedented social and ecological crisis.

Adv. Ashutosh K. Sharma practices at the Delhi High Court.