At 8pm on 24 March 2020, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, declared a 'total lockdown' for the entire population of 1.3 billion people. In a speech lasting less than 30 minutes, he urged Indians to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus, but failed to outline any concrete measures to help workers. Unsurprisingly, chaos ensued.
In the weeks that followed, photographs emerged of thousands of daily wage earners and migrant workers who had started walking back to their home towns and villages. In India, more than 90% of the population is employed in informal sector, and more than 100 million rural people work as daily wage earners, casual workers, contractual labourers and service providers in different cities. Meeting their daily needs is dependent on getting daily work, therefore introducing these drastic measures without concrete support has only reinforced social inequalities – instilling fear and uncertainty.
At the same, a number of controversial projects have been granted environmental approval while the pandemic has captured the spotlight, causing distress, fear and anger in the communities affected. One such project is the Hubballi-Ankola railway line project in the state of Karnataka in south India. It spans 168 km linking the city of Hosapete in central Karnataka with ports at Belikeri and Tadadi in coastal district of Uttara Kannada. The project passes through the Kali tiger reserve and other protected areas, and would involve the felling of nearly 200,000 trees and the destruction of rich biodiversity.
This project was first sanctioned in 1998 for the transport of iron ore, but since then it has been rejected multiple times due to the significant environmental harm it would cause. In 2004 the Forest Advisory Committee concluded that the project could not be justified since it will “simply be a tragedy on the prime forests…and have an irreversible effect on the fragile ecosystem of Western Ghats”.
In 2015, the Supreme Court of India was recommended not to consider the project for approval due to diversion of rich forest land. In 2018, a three-member expert committee consisting of the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MOEF) and the Wildlife Institute of India conducted a detailed evaluation and recommended “complete abatement” of the project due to “its wider ecological ramifications”. Each of these decisions were welcomed by grassroots activists and civil society organisations working to preserve the biodiversity of the Western Ghats.
Despite this however, the project was given the green light on 20 March 2020, just days before the official lockdown started and amidst general fear and uncertainties associated with the pandemic.
Similarly, in the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, another controversial project involving hydro electricity generation was debated by the MOEF´s Forest Advisory Committee on 23 April. A company called Etalin Hydro Electric Power Company Limited requested permission to fell at least 270,000 trees for its 3,097 mega-watts hydroelectric project, which would cause huge destruction to the pristine forests containing rich flora and fauna. Scientists and experts have since written to the MOEF warning about the consequences that this project will have on the biodiversity as well as to the indigenous communities living in the area.
On 21 April, the Supreme Court began the hearing to restart iron ore mining in India's smallest state Goa by the mining giant Vedanta Ltd. Vedanta has been the focus of many environmental justice movements in India and abroad, including the 2018 mass protest in Tamil Nadu against its copper smelting plant which resulted in deaths of 13 people when police open fired on protesters. In 2018, the Supreme Court banned mining and transportation of iron ore in the state due to illicit extraction and pollution by revoking all the mining leases that had been granted.
Similar cases of environmental injustices are also being reported around the world every day. In the Philippines, local communities in the province of Nueva Vizcaya had blocked the entry of fuel tankers and other service vehicles in the Didipio gold and copper mine. Yet, on 6 April, amidst the coronavirus lockdown, three tankers carrying roughly 60,000 litres of fuel were delivered to the site after community leaders were forcibly removed. In the USA, the government is planning to weaken federal laws to benefit fossil fuel industries.
The Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen advises on “careful listening rather than inflexible decisions without proper consultation”, and notes that threatening dissenters with punitive measures without listening to the problems of the masses would be counteractive to solving the crisis at hand.
The fact that such environmentally damaging projects are being pushed through while the world is facing a pandemic and people are unable to organise protests is unacceptable, and has rightly been criticised by grassroots organisations and environmental activists worldwide.
The post-pandemic world will be one of financial distress. The development-environment debate with re-emerge with more vigour; we are already witnessing it as more and more controversial projects are being given the green light in the name of 'industrial development', while indigenous territories are being encroached upon and environmental protection laws and regulations are being diluted.
Noted novelist Arundhati Roy called this pandemic a portal which we need to cross – and we can decide whether we wish to continue with the old structural inequalities and injustices or imagine a new way forward based on ideas of solidarity, equality, justice and real democracy.
This can only be possible people and planet are put before profits.
The author would like to thank Amitangshu Acharya and Gouri Ramkumar for their detailed comments on the earlier versions of this article.