As the Govt becomes busy resuscitating the economy and fighting the pandemic, all environmental initiatives will take a back seat
Fears of the pandemic worsening the already ailing economy of the country are starting to come true as India reported its first fiscal contraction since 1980 and a maiden quarterly Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fall as well. As a spate of lockdowns ravaged the economy even further, the figures said it all. The National Statistical Office (NSO) data showed that India’s GDP contracted by 23.9 per cent in the April-June quarter in comparison to the same period last year. The combined impact of demonetisation, implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime had already decelerated the economy in the last two years, but the current pandemic threatens to bring it to a grinding halt. Some of the biggest sectors are in a dismal state. The construction sector, for instance, is seeing a 50 per cent fall in business activity whereas manufacturing is witnessing a drop of 39 per cent. The hospitality sector, on the other hand, is undergoing a 47 per cent slump. These conditions are not only stoking unemployment and exacerbating poverty but are making it difficult for the common man to get access to quality healthcare. This steep GDP plunge of the last four decades highlights the economic predicament that the nation finds itself in and worryingly these conditions do not bode well for the environment as well.
What makes it worse for India is the fact that there has been no major progress in its Human Development Index (HDI) which can cushion this economic decline. According to the United Nations (UN) 2019 HDI report, India ranks 129th out of 189 nations. This, basically translates to grim social sector development in terms of life expectancy, per capita income and education levels. Past trends show that a better social sector development in India automatically caused increased awareness among people in environmental conservation and conversely when the economy deteriorated, people become more interested in their self-preservation and less concerned with the state of the environment. This is evident by the fact that major environmental movements such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan or protests against the Tehri Dam projects happened while the economy was in the midst of changing gears and not going through a slump.
To many observers, it may appear as though the slowdown may have eased the voracious demands of a burgeoning economy on natural resources, thereby giving the environment a much-deserved break. But this is a short-term gain because in the long-term the very initiatives that are taken to fight climate change, cope with greenhouse gas emissions and tackle pollution problems are all based on the functioning of a healthy economy which can fund these activities. In the absence of a sustainable source of finances, much of the environmental conservation initiatives in India would just drift and make no progress. As the Government becomes increasingly busy in resuscitating the economy on the one hand and fighting the pandemic on the other, environmental concerns and related initiatives will get junked.
Another aspect that will hit the environment is the fact that there will be an inevitable drop in corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities of India Inc. Thanks to a dwindling economy, most of the cash- starved businesses are struggling to meet their monthly wage bills, let alone divert funds for CSR initiatives. This translates into a double whammy for the environment as Government-funded projects are poised to slow down and CSR projects, too, are unlikely to be accorded budgets and priority. This sudden paucity of finances, coupled with the stringent social distancing norms and lockdown conditions, can stop many environmental projects in their tracks. This is unfortunate as the considerable progress made so far would be rendered futile.
Given the direct relationship between the economic slump and environmental deterioration, it is essential for the Government to decouple both aspects in the best interests of the environment. In its effort to decouple the economic downturn and its impact on the environment, the Government must build on the initial advantages the slowdown provided the environment. The relief to the environment on account of lesser exploitation of natural resources and pollution generated must be coupled with specific economic initiatives that are directed towards generating employment in the environment conservation sector. This will address two problems in one go: That of addressing unemployment as well as conserving the environment.
Similarly, for those marginal and micro, small and medium enterprises that have gone bankrupt due to COVID-19, the Government can offer a fresh lease of life by announcing special financial, technical and infrastructural support packages if they choose to restart business activities in the renewable energy sector or any environment conservation-related one. Every dark cloud has a silver lining, and so does the current economic crisis, provided the latent opportunity for environment conservation is spotted and leveraged. If this is not done, the environment will suffer the same way the economy already is.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)