World Earth Day 2019: Dia Mirza on Challenges Facing India

“Human lives and the environment are inter-connected”

Q & A with SDG Advocate Dia Mirza

Original blog Q & A published in Times of India

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Is India unable to implement at local levels its international commitments made in Paris Agreement?

Lack of communication among our enforcing agencies needs to be blamed here. As long as ministries do not consult each other and work in coordination, nothing is going to change. One big problem is that the railways is not talking to roadways, and roadways is not talking to environment. Every department is working in the abstract and in isolation. In the current circumstances, there are various areas of development that are demanding coordination and communication between different ministries. Until that happens, I can’t imagine how we hope to implement any of the promises we made in the agreement.

Should citizens’ voices be considered over those of politicians or administrators, when the former feel that a development project is detrimental for the environment?

Public opinion should always be considered, that’s how a democracy works. There is no denying we are facing a real crisis and it has become imperative to put every development plan in public domain. Civil society should get the opportunity to be a part of decision-making. Especially when it comes to urbanisation and development, public hearing becomes essential. The government can’t keep us in the dark and take decisions in isolation.

When politicians are determined to showcase infrastructure work as an achievement on their report cards, without paying heed to sustainability, what should citizens do?

The idea of progress needs to change in our country and citizens can challenge it. If urbanisation was the answer to our problems, we would not have been facing the climate challenges that we do today. At local levels, citizens need to question every small and big project, the manner in which infrastructural development is taking place at the cost of public and environment health. While demonstrations will help in drawing attention to the cause, eventually only legal recourse can overturn major decisions.

Green activists are often seen as obstructionists. Why?

Environmentalism is not a synonym for obstructionism, it is in fact pro-progress and pro-human development. When people demonstrate on an issue publicly, it is perceived as agitation. When raising concerns over an anti-environment project, the first step for citizens should be coming together and having face-to-face communications with their elected leaders. Seek appointments, meet the ministers, and explain to them the pros and cons with a scientific and rational voice backing you up. If this doesn’t work, then comes the time for mass agitations.

Are we really compensating for the environmental losses?

There is a false notion that human beings can recreate what nature has done for us. Very often, a counterargument goes, ‘So what if we are losing certain amount of green cover, we are planting so many trees.’ However, what we don’t realise is that it is impossible for us to replicate the benefits of age-old trees. Taking away green cover in the name of development and justifying it by planting saplings is nothing but irrational.

Though governments assure they are pro-environment, critics point to several instances when that wasn’t the case when it came to taking a decision. What would you say to policy makers?

It is unfortunate that so much lack of awareness lies within our system. There is an evident need to bring more consciousness in policy making and even in the legal framework. Like in the case of Mumbai’s Aarey forest, the authorities chose to ignore alternatives suggested by experts. Why should the government be so indifferent towards environment, despite the challenges that we are facing today? Why aren’t they choosing better and sustainable alternatives when they exist?

Until and unless every politician and every administrator in our country recognises that human lives and environment are inter-connected, nothing can change. There is more and more understanding about this in the world where policy makers are ascertaining this inter-relationship. We can only hope that it happens in India soon, before it’s too late.

Ben Schaare