Sunday, July 14, 2024

Meghalaya’s environment: Are we losing the fight against climate change?


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By Patricia Mukhim

There is no doubt that the climate is getting hotter. In cities like Delhi people are getting fried. Add to that the water wars that defy solutions. Compared to the rest of India, Meghalaya is still a paradise and the summer rains have kept the temperatures at a bearable constant of 21-23 degrees centigrade depending on which part of the day we are in. But let’s not fool ourselves that the weather will continue to be on our side for long. The Shillong Times story on illegal mining and quarrying should actually send alarm bells ringing. Imagine having 1700 out of 1885 mines/quarries operating illegally! And even after that story appeared, it is business as usual. Sometimes you wonder what will shake up the Government to take a pause out of its money-spinning schemes that it attracts people with and take a call on the environmental degradation that is happening at a rapid pace in Meghalaya.
The question that begs an answer is whether the one Department that is supposedly the custodian of the environment and forests in the State of Meghalaya is in safe hands. Who is manning the Department at the higher echelons? Should the Chief Minister, who holds several important portfolios from Finance, Mining and Geology, Political, Personnel and Information Technology also be in charge of the Department of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. This Department was held by another Sangma brother in the last Government. The Department almost looks like a family estate that cannot be given to any other minister. And the Chief Minister as the minister in charge of this vital department is not even aware that there are 1700 quarries/mines that are going to turn Meghalaya into a flat and barren land soon if there are no checks and balances by civil society activists.
The Department of Forests is itself in a quandary. It lost a fairly senior officer – Manjunath last year to a heart-related problem. The officer was probably working under a lot of stress. Those who know the inside story believe he was used by politicians to carry out their bidding at great cost to the environment and to his own life. There is a need to check out the unsavoury affairs going on in the Forest Colony – an area under the Forest Department and whether that area was denotified to allow for private residential buildings which are coming up at a rapid pace. Even if the Forest Department does not need that large estate or the existing forests around that place, there should have been a transparent transfer of the land to private owners and not subversive deals as has happened.
On March 13, 2024, Chief Conservator of Forests, N Luikham died of suicide inside his quarters. It was reported that he had spoken to some relative just about an hour before and that he was in fact packing and preparing for his official trip to Delhi. Luikham left no suicide note and it would have been incumbent on the Government to investigate the cause of his death. Did he really die of suicide? Was he pushed by some extraneous circumstances to take his own life? Or what was really the case? No one knows and no one cares. What a remorseless Government this is, unless it is also trying to cover up some trails.
On June 24, the Forest Department organised a training programme on Forest Certification and Carbon Credit where Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Harish C Choudhary informed that Meghalaya has lost 17,000 hectares of forest cover in a span of 6 years from 2014-2020. Choudhary said that 76% of forest cover is open and degraded while a substantial part is occupied by horticulture crops. But more damning than this information is the Chief Secretary, DP Wahlang’s warning that the Department should follow due procedures in all cases involving investors in Meghalaya. He mentioned a vaccine manufacturing company that had ostensibly started an afforestation programme in Meghalaya with an investment of Rs 400 crores and had even set up its office but without having come through the State Government. So how did this Company get its clearances? Is this not a dangerous precedent? Wahlang was candid in stating that a company coming in to invest in Meghalaya is doing so to rake in profits from the carbon credit markets. The question is whether Meghalaya’s Forest Department has the expertise to register carbon credits and other credible registries as well.
What is also a cause of concern about the Forest Department is that a senior official in the Department whose signing powers have been suspended by the Courts due to ongoing investigations against him, is still deciding important matters whereas other officers are made to sign on those papers. This is subterfuge as its worst. Why can’t the Chief Minister as executive head of the Department not put adequate safeguards on this duplicity? And why must Meghalaya harbour such officers as if there is a famine of forest officials?
Let me now come to another interesting aspect vis a vis the environment. On June 25, the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board (MSPCB) gave a press statement that as per the Rule 4(2) of the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016, the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of single use plastics including polystyrene and expanded polystyrene commodities was to be prohibited from July 1, 2022. However the MSPCB received a complaint from the Central Pollution Control Board on June 4, 2024 that single-use plastics were still being manufactured by M/s Jai Plastech Private Ltd. The MSPCB inspected the premises of the aforesaid company and found that it was still manufacturing single use plastics. The entire stock of plastics and raw material weighing 0.95 tonnes was seized by the MSPCB and the Company was fined Rs 4.28 lakh.
Again this is a bit strange considering that the MSPCB is expected to carry out regular inspections of the industrial areas to check the pollution levels of those spaces. How did this unit escape the attention of the State Pollution Agency? And don’t tell us that the MSPCB officials or their wives don’t go marketing and haven’t seen those black plastic bags being freely distributed since 2022? Above all, Chief Minister, Conrad Sangma had promised some school students way back in 2019 that single use plastics which are toxic to the environment would be banned. That never happened even while the students look on in bewilderment at an unfulfilled promise.
It is tragic indeed that a state that is trying to promote tourism and relies heavily on its environment is ignoring these dangerous signs where forest cover is disappearing at a frenetic pace. The more ethical question is – What are we leaving behind for our children and grand-children? It is my considered opinion that most of the high level elites in the government today will not be settling down in Meghalaya. Their children are studying abroad and when life here becomes unlivable they will shift base to greener pastures. They have amassed enough wealth to do so. Those who will suffer the consequences are those who voted these privileged ones to hold positions of responsibility even as we are left to confront our own frailty and fallibility. Indeed, the price we pay for our errors is higher than the benefits we gain from our small successes.
To be thinking of all these human-induced consequences and the relentless assault on the environment is to brutalize our souls. But we have to keep at it. Ancient wisdom speaks of scepticism of the head and audacity of the heart. That’s how we have to brave the anti-climate brigands. We may not win the climate war but we will continue to fight the small battles.


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