An Indian ragpicker walks among heaps of rubbish at a city waste dump on World Earth Day in Dimapur, India's northeastern state of Nagaland on April 22. Photo: CFP
India on May 16 witnessed the crushing victory of its new prime minister, Narendra Modi, leader of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The 63-year-old promised to improve the lives of all Indians and vowed to "make the 21st century India's century."
However, desperate to keep pace on the highway of economic growth, the flip side of India's success story is the tale of ruining the environment. Even though every cross-section of its population faces the wrath of environmental degradation and climate change, green issues are yet to become priorities for the newly elected government.
"Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change," said Rajendra K Pachauri, chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change.
India's meteorological department has warned about the disastrous consequences of the weather phenomenon El Nino and agriculture, an important contributor to the Indian economy, would be the first hit.
"The Himalayan glaciers are receding, agricultural yields are stagnating, dry days have increased, and patterns of monsoons have become unpredictable. India is increasingly seeing the effects of climate change," Jairam Ramesh, India's former environment and forest minister, said in 2009.
Five years on, the threat to environment has only increased and climate issues have become larger worries. Although rapid economic growth has brought many benefits to India, the environment has suffered, exposing the population to serious air and water pollution, said the World Bank in March.
It added that environmental degradation can cost India $80 billion per year or 5.7 percent of its economy.
"India needs long-term action. We need to protect our forest, agriculture, land and the ocean for effective carbon sequestration," said Dr Rahas Bihari Panda of Environment Science Department at North Odisha University.
"Unfortunately, all these sequestering agents are under threat," Panda added.
Meanwhile, India is losing forests to make space for industries and other development projects. According to government reports, India's forest coverage now has come down to 21.05 percent of its total geographic area, with a loss of 367 square kilometers between 2009 and 2011.
However, India's Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) found many of the forest and environmental clearances issued to such projects were in violation of Supreme Court orders and government regulations.
CAG report also pointed out that most projects don't comply with laws and the expectation of compensatory afforestation.
"Even where the companies have done this, it's mostly commercial monoculture at the cost of natural forests," said Ranjan Panda, a water conservation activist and member of the Waterkeeper Alliance.
Citing the example of eucalyptus plantation by companies on land previously used for sustenance farming, Panda said that the companies "benefit from the raw materials" for their products, and by obtaining carbon credits that give them the needed green tag to raise more finance.
In the business, such projects snatch away land from hundreds of thousands of farmers, pushing food insecurity upon them.
"Government absence at the grass roots coupled with weak (almost non-existent) mechanisms to monitor the implementation of regulations targeted at these companies that manage to get carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol, makes the situation still worse," Panda added.
"Environmental governance has failed in the country," Pune-based ecologist Madhav Gadgil noted last year, criticizing the inadequate role of the government in protecting the environment.
"The corporate lobby mostly wins in the game because India has been blind to everything else for industrialization," said Biswajit Mohanty, a nature conservationist and anti-corruption activist.
However, "The priorities of the next government are not going to change as long as the desperation for an economic miracle rules over the policies," Mohanty added.
To most of the activists and environment lovers, a major issue that puts environment under threat is that the government doesn't abide by the laws of the land and often compromises with the laws when big investments or industrial projects come on the way.
"It happened in the case of South Korea-based Posco, the UK-based Vedanta Resources and even the government's own nuclear plant at Koodankulum in Tamil Nadu," said Prasanta Paikray, a Communist leader involved in the people's movement against Posco's proposed steel plant.
As the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance will form the government under the leadership of Modi, environmentalists are skeptical about the new government's policies with regard to environmental protection while pursuing development.
The environmental governance section of the BJP manifesto has a headline saying "Flora, Fauna and Environment - Safeguarding Our Tomorrow." However, the rest of the document does not say anything about how they are going to improve environmental governance in India or if they even see this need, noted Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
It makes very clear on what to do in its industry section, which can only be disastrous for India's environment, Thakkar said.
The BJP's track record has little to show that it is serious on environmental issues, Thakkar added.
Keeping in view Modi's high sounding promises for industrialization and infrastructural development during the election campaign, one can hardly say that environment will feature in his list of priorities.