The recent case of "Re: Cleanliness of Umiam Lake versus State of Meghalaya (2023)" heard by the Meghalaya High Court raises concerns about the environmental impact of construction and tourism on the entire northeast’s biodiversity.
Biodiversity of the Northeast
Northeast India is a green belt region due to its abundant natural resources such as oil, natural gas, minerals and fresh water.
The Garo-Khasi-Jaintia hills and the Brahmaputra valley are some of the most important biodiversity hotspots.
How climate change is threatening the North-East?
Changed rainfall pattern: Rainfall patterns over the region in the last century have considerably changed, resulting in its overall drying up.
Variation in temperature: From rice to tea, crop cultivation across the board has been affected by variations in temperature and rainfall, causing distress to agricultural workers.
Fluctuations in water flow and erratic flooding have exacerbated riverine erosion, which hinders the lives and livelihoods of communities residing near the Brahmaputra and its tributaries.
Desertification: Six states in northeastern India were among the top 10 places in the country with the highest rates of desertification between 2003 and 2018. These are Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya.
A large fraction of settlements on forest reserve areas and grazing lands are communities that have been previously displaced by riverbank erosion. These communities fall within the category of climate refugees, a term coined to describe the increasing number of people displaced due to environmental disruptions.
Major threats to the environment
Though the northeast is industrially backward, deforestation, floods, and existing industries are causing serious problems to the environment in the region.
An environmental assessment of the North East Rural Livelihood Project undertaken by the Ministry of Development of the North-eastern Region lays out that “Northeast India lies within ecologically fragile, biologically rich region, highly prone to climatic changes, located in trans boundary river basins. Both flora and fauna of the areas are under threat due to deforestation, mining, quarrying, shifting cultivation.”
Development of Environmental Laws and Offences: During the 1980s, India established numerous environmental laws and policies. Offences against the environment were framed under Sections 268 to 290 of the Indian Penal Code, classifying them as "public nuisance."
Challenges with Autonomy and District Councils: The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution grants autonomy to District Councils. This autonomy limits State authority, including land use, within the jurisdiction of District Councils.
In cases like Umiam Lake, District Councils often lack regulations for land preservation, especially near waterbodies.
Environmental Litigation and PILs: Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution fostered public interest litigation (PILs) and judicial activism. Environmental litigation surged, with instances like the National Green Tribunal imposing fines on state governments.
In 2019, Meghalaya faced a ?100 crore fine for failing to curb illegal mining.
Manipur encountered a ?200 crore fine for improper waste management in 2022.
Role of Judicial and Quasi-Judicial Organs: Judicial and quasi-judicial bodies, like the National Green Tribunal, play a vital role. Stringent guidelines and heavy penalties imposed by these bodies protect ecologically sensitive flora and fauna.
What measures can be adopted to protect the north-east?
Balancing Development and Sustainability: Central and State governments must ensure infrastructure, revenue, and employment growth through sustainable strategies.
North East Industrial Development Scheme (NEIDS) and Environment: The NEIDS, 2017's 'Negative List' is a positive step. Entities not adhering to environmental standards, clearances, or pollution board consent won't receive NEIDS incentives. The 'Negative List' aligns incentives with environmental compliance.
Comprehensive Approach in 'Act Fast for Northeast' Policy: The 'Act Fast for Northeast' policy should encompass more than "trade and commerce."
Prioritizing environment and ecology preservation is crucial.
Striving for a 10 trillion-dollar economy without environmental protection lacks value.
Uniform Environmental Legislation for Comprehensive Governance: Central and State governments should consider uniform and comprehensive environmental laws.
Addressing environmental issues across governance levels is essential for effective protection.