Cyclone Fani that struck Odisha last month left a trail of devastation and destruction across 14 districts in the state. Now, both the state and central government machineries are working hard for the relief and rehabilitation of the victims.
But much more needs to be done at the community level and with the participation of all, according to lawyers and legal activists having concern for the environment and the planet. They strongly feel that all political parties, administrative leaders, the legal fraternity, including judges and lawyers, industrialists and institutions working in the field of community development should engage in community debates and thought provoking local seminars to view the post-cyclonic situation from a different perspective.
The Super Cyclone of 1999 was a grim reminder that nature does not protect the man who ravages the environment. And Fani has taught us many more complex issues related to environmental protection.
Victims of injustice, oppression and exploitation can knock on the doors of legal institutions or forums for redressal of their grievances. But what about the life-sustaining land, water, air, forests, rivers and mountains that are polluted, exploited and ravaged by human activities, despite administrative and legal provisions to protect nature? Who will they approach for redressal and who will speak on their behalf? These are pertinent questions that we humans need to address.
Administrative and legal provisions to protect the nature have failed visibly. Therefore, it is high time to make these provisions more powerful and effective in order to ensure justice to the flora, fauna and other natural resources in the world.
Our academic institutions teach us that these natural resources are essential for the growth and development of living entities, both humans and non-humans. On the contrary, human societies consider natural resources as their personal property. In a hedonistic and consumerist culture, people have a selfish mentality of “I, me and mine” to acquire and exploit resources. And the same goes for our mentality towards natural resources. We destroy nature and the environment with impunity for ourselves, without thinking about our future generations. We are not concerned whether the river passing through our locality is healthy or sick. We are least bothered whether the social forestry programme in our area is protected or not or if it’s polluted and ravaged by the local community.
What is more alarming is that the states, which are appointed by law as the trustees of natural resources, are themselves competing to build dams on rivers, without consideration to protecting water from pollution or ensuring the regular flow of water sources.
Moreover, the natural flow of rivers is disturbed and regulated and utilized for the industrialists by the riparian states. And come elections, politicians harp on the injustice done to their respective states on distribution of river waters for political gains.
The state machineries also seem disinterested in the protection and preservation of community forests. They have made no efforts to democratize the management of community forests; they never involve village communities in managing and maintaining natural resources and bio-diversity.
To add salt to injury, unplanned economic development schemes in coastal areas with the establishment of hotels, absence of sewerage treatment plant and consequent pollution of sea water also go unaddressed. We have over utilized and over exploited the coastal space without appreciating the natural requirements of such areas. The state administrative machinery too doesn’t show any concern for this.
Our laws for protection of natural resources and environmental statutes in the legal compendiums only adorns the libraries of the legal luminaries and are rarely used for protecting the planet. We must remember that mineral resources, coal and sand that cannot be replenished should be utilized in a controlled manner to sustain human society. But the administration shows no concern in this regard.
Our uncontrolled use of water for power generation pollutes the environment as well as increases the temperature of the earth. The indiscriminate cutting of trees, destruction of forests and mountains, unbridled use of petrol and coal as well as gadgets like air-conditioners and refrigerators are destroying the ozone umbrella over the earth, leading to global warming.
Both the state and society should evolve mechanisms to prevent exploitation of natural resources. We don’t have the required number of social activists, community leaders and pro-environmental lawyers to fight against such exploitation of natural resources and growing pollution levels. The number of judges sensitive to these issues and desirous of delivering progressive judgments on environmental matters is also limited. Very few show an eagerness to understand the complex issues concerning environmental litigation and prioritizing hearings of such cases.
Lawyers and environmental activists working for the protection of environment and litigating on such issues are often branded as eco-terrorists blocking economic growth by using environmental protection laws. The decline in the institutions of environmental justice could seriously affect the lives of ordinary citizens, leading to a clear trust deficit. After all, democracy is sustained by a legal system that is just and fair and accessible to all.
Government officials who are in-charge of providing information under the Right to Information Act, are reluctant to share information pertaining to environmental issues.
For maintaining a balance between economic development and the protection of environment, our judiciary has delivered a plethora of judgments on recognizing the right to a healthy environment as a part of the right to life, and accepted petitions on behalf of parties and inanimate objects (such as nature) that cannot litigate for themselves.
The Supreme Court has also evolved several principles for the protection of the environment. However, many distinguished judges have shown a negative attitude towards such judgments and environmental principles on sustainable development.
Our lawmakers have enough potential to hinder the institutions that dilute environmental laws. But they seem hardly bothered on this count. We too as a society are to be blamed. The industries near our localities create eco hazards, but that do not bother us as we are still suffering from “the not in my backyard syndrome”. It is high time to deeply reflect on the issue of giving the local communities freedom to plan for the better growth of their respective areas, instead of the state and central governments preparing developmental models sitting in Delhi and the state headquarters.
This model of development that is blind to caring for the environment is a life and death issue for humanity. The instrumentalities in-charge of developmental programmes must realize that if we destroy nature, it will destroy us.
(The author is a member of the Odisha State Bar Council and General Secretary of All Odisha Lawyers’ Association)
(Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily represent that of the web portal)