environment
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This article is written by Shreya Malhotra, currently pursuing BBA LLB from Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad. This article deals with the impact caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on our Environment.

Introduction

The world is facing an outbreak which human civilization has witnessed after at least 5 pandemics in the current century. This major outbreak named novel coronavirus or COVID-19 originated from the seafood market of Hunan which is situated in Wuhan city of China in December 2019 and just within a few months after its origination, it turned out to be a global health emergency. Due to which, many countries have undergone complete lockdown and imposed many other guidelines and restrictions.

There is no doubt about the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives altogether differently from social distancing to freely moving outside our houses. But this pandemic has not only affected our lives but also the planet.

Due to measures taken against COVID-19 such as social distancing, lockdowns, etc. the pollution and toxins in the air have dropped to a significant level. Even the levels of dangerous toxins like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide have dropped. Reduction in transportation and other activities taking place in factories and industries has caused a noticeable reduction in greenhouse gases mainly carbon dioxide and methane.

But this kind of positive change in the environment will only be seen for a short or medium span of time. These benefits are temporary in nature unless there are any measures taken to curb such issues.

Overview of the whole situation

The dreaded Coronavirus has led most of the countries to go through a lockdown phase, including India. India itself went into lockdown on 25th March and now it has been more than 2 months of us being locked inside our homes. Although recently the country has started moving towards its unlock phase i.e. UNLOCK 1.0 but still it is not the end of the crisis yet. We need to be more cautious and careful than before.

As this sudden crisis caused a lot of damage to the people and economy, millions have lost their jobs, many of them committed suicide, millions of labourers have walked thousands of kilometres to reach their homes, farmers have gone under debt, everyone is facing one or more health issues and a lot more.

But one thing which everyone must have noticed during this pandemic is our environment. The sky is getting clear, the clear chirping of birds, clean water of rivers, clean beaches, wild animals roaming on the streets, and most importantly pollution and noise-free air. This is one and the only positive thing which has been noticed by several people during the pandemic.

Although all this greenery and clear skies might not last long, and will soon get back to its usual state after this pandemic gets over. The only thing it has taught us is to respect nature and start protecting it. Everyone should take the benefit from such shutdowns so that the environment can get more clear.

Talking about the participation of the government in making the environment clean and pollution-free, initiatives have been taken by the government, but sadly most of them are filled with loopholes that need to be corrected. There is an urgent need for the implementation of strict plans for the conservation of the environment. The government should use this pandemic to its benefit and maintain a balance between development and the environment. Rather than focusing just on the development of the economy.

How has COVID-19 impacted the environment? 

We as human beings have always been dependent on mother nature. But when it comes to contributing towards it, we have become very ignorant towards taking care of it. We have always been very careless towards saving our natural resources and we have forgotten the beauty of this Earth completely.

But this COVID-19 pandemic has made us observe how nature is so important. The visible improvements in the environment have definitely made us believe that there is a serious need to take care and start preserving nature. Our actions can definitely create a huge impact on the sustainability of this Earth.

From the intake of fresh air to greener trees, spotting wildlife creatures into urban roads, the environment has definitely started getting better. Here are some noticeable changes:

Improvement in the quality of air

Considering the situation of New Delhi, as it is considered to be one of the most polluted cities in the world. Still, a noticeable change in its air quality has been seen and is clearly visible. According to the Air Quality Index (AQI), the usual air quality of New Delhi used to be around 200 which shows the level of unhealthiness in the air. But, during the lockdown and other restrictions imposed by the government, there were hardly any vehicles found on the roads which resulted in AQI level falling below 20. 

According to the report of Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) a drop in the level of pollution before 8th February 2020 to 23rd March 2020 and during 25th March to 8th May 2020 in Bangalore, has been observed that 4 out of 26 monitoring stations in Bengaluru noted a decline of more than 40% in the level of pollution with PM 2.5, also the stations near Bellandur Lake the highest drop of 75% was noted. Along with this, 21 stations noted a decline of 20%-30% fall in the level of pollution.

It was recorded that the level of pollution in Bengaluru from all monitoring stations has reduced by approximately 28 % in the period during the lockdown differentiated with the period before the lockdown. Apart from Bangalore, New Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, and Mumbai have also seen and recorded a drastic fall in the air pollutants.

Change in the water quality 

Another important change noticed by the general public was in water bodies, which were turned into severe canals before lockdown in the name of economic growth. The South Asian River Dolphins which are commonly known as Ganges River Dolphins were spotted in the river Ganga after a long period of 30 years. These dolphins have also been spotted at various Ganga Ghats of Kolkata, the reason for which is the reduction of pollution in water.

Similarly, the lockdown has resulted in the reduction of pollution in water due to which 1.5 lakh of flamingos were noticed gathered in Navi Mumbai. These birds generally migrate to the area every year, but people living there reported that this time there were a massive number of flamingos seen in the city.

After dolphins and flamingos, a noticeable change was also seen in the Ganga river. The Uttarakhand Environment Protection and Pollution Control Board tested the water from Har-ki-Puri in Haridwar, and it was found that the water is ‘fit for drinking’ after chlorination which was noticed for the very first time in decades. The water has also been marked as ‘A’ in terms of quality.

The main reason for the pollution in water is industrial and factorial waste which is thrown directly into the water. But, we can assume the fact that due to this nationwide lockdown, the waste coming out of industries and factories has suddenly stopped due to which there has been a significant change in the quality of water worldwide.

Freely and fearlessly roaming animals

One more positive change noticed during the lockdown period is that wild animals have started coming on the streets of cities as well as villages. Many wild animals have been noticed simply roaming outside their territorial area. Recently, a deer was spotted roaming on the streets in Japan. Even the Mountain goats were spotted roaming on the streets of Llandudno of North Welsh. 

A pair of whales taking the advantage of lockdown were seen playing and enjoying on the Mediterranean coast of Southern France. Elephants were also found happily walking on the streets in India and Sri Lanka. 3 Sambar deers were noticed roaming on the roads of Uttarakhand in India. Similarly, Nilgai was also found walking on the streets of Noida, Uttar Pradesh. A leopard was also noticed walking around very close to an Air Force base in Patna, Bihar. These examples show that even animals have observed a positive change in the environment during this pandemic.

Severe drop in the level of air pollutants

The shutdown of human activities around the world has caused a significant drop in levels of air pollutants and warming gases over many cities. Carbon monoxide has reduced to a level of nearly 50% as compared to last year. Even the emissions of plant heating gas carbon dioxide have dropped sharply. Although there are warnings that these levels could rise up more rapidly once this pandemic is over. Even the satellites which monitor pollution for NASA and the European Space Agency have also noticed a sudden decrease in airborne nitrogen dioxide resulting after the shutdowns.

It has been noticed in the UK, London, and Edinburgh that there is a fall in the levels of Nitrogen dioxide by up to 60% when compared to last year’s status. Though according to the experts the short term improvement is seen there might not have any long term benefits. This situation also needs a collective approach like the COVID-19 crisis.

What steps are being taken by the government? 

Though the government has taken some major eco-friendly steps to protect the environment such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Clean Ganga Mission, Toilets before Temples, etc. but talking about recent days the government’s focus has been shifted towards industrial development and neglect towards protecting the environment. Also, environmentalists and other people have been criticizing the government moves as it is giving approval to major industrial projects and is in a relaxing mood towards the nation’s environmental assessment rules even after knowing the fact that COVID-19 has created a huge impact on the environment.

More shift towards development

At the time when India went into lockdown, various controversial projects which were lined up for many years have been granted approval. One such project is the Hubbali-Ankola railway line project in Karnataka. It spans over 168 km connecting the town of Hosapete in central Karnataka with ports at Belikeri and Tadadi in the coastal district of Uttara Kannada. This project includes passing through the Kali tiger reserve including various other protected areas, and the project would include the felling of approximately 200,000 trees with the loss of rich biodiversity.

This plan was first approved for the transportation of iron ore in 1998 but since then it has been declined many times because of the substantial environmental damage it would bring. The Forest Advisory Committee reported in 2004 that the project could not be justified because it would simply be a disaster on the prime forests and have an adverse impact on Western Ghats’ delicate environment.

In 2005, the Ministry of Railways reviewed and again submitted the plan, but was unfortunately rejected in 2008. Then again in August 2015, the Central Empowered Committee made certain recommendations to the Supreme Court suggesting not to consider the project due to the destruction of rich forest areas. Then again in 2018, a three-member expert committee comprising the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) and the Wildlife Institute of India undertook a thorough assessment and recommended a complete reduction of the project because of its broader ecological implications.

All these views and decisions were supported by grassroot activists and civil society organizations working in order to protect the Western Ghats. But, despite all this, on 20th March 2020, just a few days before the official lockdown began, the project was still given a green signal despite general fear and uncertainty associated with the pandemic.

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Projects doing more harm than good

In the past few months, the ministry has signed off a project on a new coal mine in an elephant reserve drilling into a wildlife sanctuary that is home to the endangered lion-tailed macaques along with the great Indian hornbills, and a contentious project to remake New Delhi’s Parliament district.

Similarly, it is considering 2 other very controversial projects namely, a large hydropower project in Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, it is yet to be cleared by the Forest Advisory Committee, the project will require cutting down of more than 250000 of trees, the reports have highlighted that this project will do more harm than good. Another project is a uranium mine in a tiger reserve in central India.

More focus on approval rather than scrutiny or discussion

The Environment ministry has also moved ahead by rewriting certain India’s environmental rules. In the month of March, the ministry issued a new draft policy on evaluating the environmental impacts of law projects. The draft also proposes in the reduction of the time which is allotted to the public for their comments on the assessments and allowing further projects to avoid this process of public comment entirely.

Although, the ministry initially provided a period of 60 days to the public for comment on the proposal the ministry extended the time till 30th June due to the request of several groups. This move by the government also has some absurd loopholes, the public hearings are no longer mandatory for several projects, similarly, the expansion rules of the project have been eased and made more flexible, the consultation process for the public becomes weak, also it legitimizes the wrongdoings by the industries.

Views by environmentalists and independent scientists

Kanchi Kohli, an environmental governance expert with the Centre for Policy Research expressed her view by saying that the government is carrying on its projects as if there is no health emergency.

India has been in lockdown since 25 March to fight against this pandemic. Yet it has been the same at the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change. Panel meetings are being conducted over video conferencing in order to approve the projects relating to mining, infrastructure, and industry mostly in forest areas.

As per the view of an independent scientist Kohli, the focus of the government is more on approval rather than scrutiny or discussion. By this, it becomes clear that the government is unable to connect the dots, or either it is ignoring the links between environmental disasters and letting go of natural resources in the name of development of the country.

Various environmentalists have warned several times that India’s lean towards the development of economy and infrastructure will result in a huge loss to the environment. The efforts to draw investments are leading to unnecessary and unsustainable projects at the expense of the environment. Environmentalists further observe that the ministry of environment is refusing modest suggestions under the umbrella of development, endangering the last existing pockets of the ecosystem and environmental resources reserves, thus undermining our resistance to climate change challenges.

It is clear by today’s situation of the world that we have taken nature for granted which has resulted in choking cities with polluted air, noise, and water. This pandemic teaches us to treat the Earth with care. But perhaps only a handful of people have realized the real situation of this country. The government still has a chance to rectify the situation. However, some people also argue that if the novel coronavirus lasts for a long time, the main focus then will be on promoting economic growth rather than the impact on the environment. There is a need for proper navigation plans as this pandemic has forced the governments in securing a balance between environment protection and the curbing of the pandemic.

Judicial Perspective

Right to pollution-free air

The right to life and liberty is guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The word ‘life’ does not merely mean the physical act of breathing. Instead, it has a much wider and deeper sense which includes the right to livelihood, right to health, right to pollution-free air, etc. The right to life includes all the aspects which are required by a man to make his life meaningful, and worth living. Similarly, Article 39(e), 47, and 48-A of the Indian Constitution state that it is the duty of the State to protect the environment.

In order to deal with the problems relating to the environment, several acts have also been enacted by the parliament but it is ultimately the court which keeps a regular check on the proper implementation of these acts, which clearly states that the judiciary had played a vital role in interpreting the laws in order to protect the environment.

Right to a healthy atmosphere

The right to live in a healthy environment gained much importance when the world started facing the ill effects of industrialization. Public Interest Litigation is one of the most important developments in the history of the Indian Judiciary. It is called the “Jurisprudence of Masses”. The Supreme Court and the High courts have been taking environmental petitions under Article 32 and 226 as the violation of Article 21 of the constitution of India.

Considering few judicial interpretations, in the case of Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar, the Supreme Court of India has recognized that air and water are inalienable parts of ‘life’ under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

In Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun v. State of UP, the Supreme Court of India held that securing and preserving people’s freedom to live in a healthy atmosphere must be achieved even though it has a certain economic expense.

In Vellore Citizen’s Welfare Forum v. Union of India, Polluter pays principle was made a constitutional ruling where the polluting party has to pay for the harm done by him to the environment.

In M.C. Mehta v. Kamalnath & Others, it was established that the Public Trust Doctrine largely depends on the principle that certain resources, such as air, water, and forests, are of such great interest to society as a whole that making them a subject of private ownership would be totally baseless.

The Supreme Court of India, in the case of Narmada Bachao Andolan v. Union of India and Ors., Held that water is the basic requirement for human beings to survive and is a part of the right to life and human rights under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

In the case of Union Carbide Corporation v. Union Of India (Bhopal Gas Tragedy), the court held that, where an undertaking is engaged in an innately dangerous or a hazardous activity and causes damage to anyone by virtue of a malfunction in the operation of such harmful or naturally unsafe movement, for example, in the escape of toxic gas, the undertaking is strictly and solely liable to compensate every person affected by it. Therefore, the Supreme Court of India developed another trend of Absolute Liability without any exemption.

Striking balance between development and environment

Although the judiciary has made several attempts to resolve the issues between the development and the environment. But ultimately the solution that has come up is that both the things have to be balanced equally, if one is given more importance the other one will start diminishing. They both need to be handled very crucially. The Supreme Court of India has played a vital role in the implementation of several laws relating to the environment and also interpreted that right to life also includes the right to a healthy and pollution-free environment and considered it as a fundamental right under article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Taking an example of last year, the Supreme Court has criticized the government over its failure to curb the pollution. The Supreme Court said that the world is laughing at India over its pollution issues. The court pointed out federal and state governments on their failure to control the increasing level of pollution. Also, the local governments were held liable for failing to control the burning of crops by farmers in Delhi and the surrounding territories. The court targeted that people living in Delhi and regions in surroundings are getting suffocated due to pollution. The court directed the government of Delhi to come up with a plan of installation of air-purifying towers across the whole city within a period of 10 days.

Thus, we can see that the Supreme Court has been focusing constantly on the issues of the environment. In a simple way, the judiciary is trying to cover the loopholes where it finds holes in the legislation. The courts in India are much more careful about the importance of environmental rights as they very well understand that the loss of natural resources cannot be renewed.

What to expect in the future? 

If we think that these positive changes which are visible during this period of crisis, will change the way people think about the environment after the crisis is over. This might not be possible completely because we, as humans, are so used to manipulating things for our own benefits. As the country has started moving towards its unlock phase, the situation would be the same again within a short span of time.

From the current situation, one thing that makes us sit and think is how it has become necessary to be prepared for what issues can occur in the near future and not just for the current conditions. The current pandemic shows that sitting or waiting for the changes to hit can be even more dangerous. It is kind of an alarm that this issue of pollution and greenhouse gas emission is a serious threat that should not be forgotten even during this crisis.

There are more than 4.2 million deaths caused every year globally mainly due to exposure to ambient air pollution, as said by the World Health Organization. This situation is enough to be a call for India to address the issue separately.

These kinds of temporary gains in the form of a reduction in the level of pollution, should not distract us from the real dangers which still exist in the environment. However, this was the situation when the country faced lockdown, but now as the country has started moving towards its unlock phase, there is pressure on the government to tackle both the situations, the crisis and climate change at the same level.

This COVID-19 crisis has pushed millions of people into the well of poverty and starvation along with severe health issues. But one thing which has become fresh is the environment, the air seems much cleaner, rivers seem to be less dirty and the animals and other species are living their lives more freely. But post COVID-19 the main target of the government will be restarting the economy with full efforts and there is a huge chance that all that the environment has gained during this period will be lost and damaged very soon. Or the situation could be even worse.

The spread of coronavirus has also increased public awareness to the extent that they can face or be prepared for facing similar crises in the near future. Due to climate change, water pollution, air pollution, noise pollution, biodiversity loss, there is a high chance of further pandemics relating to one of these issues. It has, therefore, become necessary that people themselves start taking care of their surroundings so that it can impact the environment as a whole.

It is the time to deal with the climate crisis and pandemic crisis concurrently. According to the view of economist Kate Raworth, it is time that the government needs a framework that can hold the complexity of the world and can think about the climate and health in one space.

Now, the matter that ultimately remains unseen is whether the current crisis will have a long-term effect on improvements in industry behaviour with increased responsiveness to the climate, or will the affairs return to their normal state after the crisis fades away.

Conclusion

COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly created a significant impact on the environment, which, if maintained post-COVID, the results will definitely be unreal in the long term. The current situation may have a big influence on our approach to pollution.

Now, as the country has moved towards the unlock phase, it’s our duty to protect our mother Earth. This nationwide lockdown has definitely taught us a lesson to minimize our unnecessary activities. We the citizens of this country can contribute a little by adjusting our comfort level such as by increasing work from home approach, try reading through E- libraries or E- newspapers, resorting to transacting online wherever possible, and so on.

Also, the government should start making a balance between development and the environment. And should take serious steps towards conservation of the environment at its earliest. As the government is responding towards the coronavirus, they still have an opportunity to discover a new path and create a big move for a healthier environment and healthy people. A shift to clean, sustainable energy and transportation would dramatically reduce the pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and the effects of future crises.


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