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Modi’s UN Climate Meet Rhetoric Can’t Mask His Govt’s Sketchy Track Record

While Modi told the UN Climate Action Summit that "need, not greed" has been India's guiding principle, his government's actions tell a different story.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the UN Climate Action Summit on September 23, 2019 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY via Getty Images
Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the UN Climate Action Summit on September 23, 2019 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

On Monday, speaking at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck a note of urgency over climate change, saying that the time for talking was over.

“The world needs to act now” if we want to save our planet, he said in his speech, adding that “need, not greed” has been India’s guiding principle when it comes to the environment.

“So India has come with more than words, we have come with a strategy and a roadmap. We believe that an ounce of practice is worth more than a tonne of preaching,” he said.

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Modi’s remarks come in the backdrop of massive climate strike protests across the world since Friday, including in India. Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, who has inspired and led the global climate strikes, also delivered a passionate speech at the summit, where she called out world leaders.

“How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” the 16-year-old said.

In February, Thunberg called out Modi in particular, saying, “Dear Mr Modi, you need to take action now against the climate crisis, not just talking about it because if you keep going on like this, doing business as usual, and just talking about and bragging about the little victories, you are going to fail. And if you fail, you are going to be seen as one of the worst villains in human history in the future. And you don’t want that.”

Thunberg wasn’t wrong to say what she did. The Modi government’s track record on protecting the environment, beginning 2014, has been sketchy to say the least.

Bizarre remarks on climate change

Remember the interaction the prime minister had with school students on Teacher’s Day in 2014? When asked for his views on climate change, Modi had said, “Climate has not changed. We have changed. Our habits have changed. Our habits have got spoiled. Due to that, we have destroyed our entire environment.”

Two days before this interaction, Modi had questioned the term “climate change” in an interview with The Hindu’s Amit Baruah. He had said, “Climate change? Is this terminology correct? The reality is this that in our family, some people are old... They say this time the weather is colder. And, people’s ability to bear cold becomes less.”

The bizarre remarks had led some international commentators to wonder whether India’s Prime Minister had become a climate-sceptic.

Many part of the country have also been facing deadly floods every year, and experts say it’s time the government takes into account the impact of climate change on India’s weather patterns. But Modi’s own environment minister Prakash Javadekar has been reluctant to acknowledge this, saying in Maharashtra last month that it would be “wrong and unscientific to attribute the current flood situation to climate change”.

Easy environmental approvals

In 2018, a Reuters report had pointed out that much like US President Donald Trump — who has been by Modi’s side at the mega events in the US, was present for the UN speech and also thinks climate change is a hoax — the Modi government was giving fast and easy environmental clearances to projects to propel economic growth.

The report, written in June last year, had said that according to government data, the environment ministry that year had cleared three new thermal power plants, a carbon black manufacturing facility, two cement plants and the expansion of four coal mines.

Air pollution is a serious issue in India, which has 15 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world. A study published in Lancet in December 2018 said that more than a million deaths in India in 2017 were attributable to air pollution.

The Reuters report also quoted Srestha Banerjee, programme manager at the private Centre for Science and Environment, as saying that in a bid to reduce the time taken to grant clearances, the government has done away with public hearings for some sectors. She called this “extremely problematic”.

Diluting environmental laws

Government documents accessed exclusively by HuffPost India earlier this year showed that the centre, at the behest of PM Modi, had sought to dilute environmental laws and rules through at least five controversial amendments.

HuffPost India’s Akshay Deshmane had found that four of these amendments were implemented and then stayed by courts.

The report said:

Government documents accessed by HuffPost India also show that senior BJP leader Manohar Parrikar, who was Defence Minister at the time, differed with the PMO’s controversial direction to give local municipalities the power to grant environment clearance to large-scale construction projects — a task they are clearly ill-equipped to do.

Deshmane also reported in May that the Prime Minister’s Office took seriously attempts by senior NCP leader Sharad Pawar to lobby for weakening the National Green Tribunal.

Future projects

Several of Modi government’s future pet projects have landed in controversy as well. The much hyped Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project aims to cut 53,000 mangrove trees that are essential to the ecology of the region. The National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL) went to court earlier this year to challenge an order denying approval for the project. The NHSRCL claimed that an environmental impact assessment was made to formulate mitigation measures to ensure mangrove

The clearances given to the ambitious Ken-Betwa river linking project have also been questioned. Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People has filed a petition with the National Green Tribunal, seeking a stay on the project.

Earlier this month NewsClick reported that a Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee has said that the river linking project should not be allowed because the harm it will cause to the environment outweighed the benefits from the project. The report also said the project did not meet the requirements under the Section 35 (6) of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972.

The situation is not different in BJP-ruled states. In Maharashtra’s Mumbai, hundreds of people have been protesting for the past four weeks against a metro car shed that would be made in Aarey after felling 4.5 lakh trees.

These projects are just a few among the most controversial ones. As momentum grows across the world against government inaction towards climate change, it is perhaps time that the Modi government practises what the PM preaches at the UN.

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