Environmental crises are causing death, destruction and deprivation on a colossal scale in India. The capitalist system is directly to blame for this catastrophe, which dwarfs even the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
India is facing the worst floods, cyclones, heatwaves and droughts in its recent history. Climate change has impacted one billion people in the country in the last year. To date, about 60,000 people have died of coronavirus in India since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. However, by comparison, deaths occurring due to environmental disasters stand at around 6.8 million people annually (as of 2010). The state and the mainstream media ignore these victims.
The key drivers of climate change in India include massive industrial emissions, deforestation, overcrowding of urban cities and corporate-led agricultural practices. Under capitalism, relying on state reforms, pushing for environmental friendly laws, appealing to the capitalists or individuals can resolve nothing in relation to climate change. The mainstream political parties, by adhering to capitalism, offer no solutions to the environmental catastrophe India is facing. In this article, we will discuss the latest EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) draft and the recent devastation wreaked by climate change in India, along with the role of the state and the revolutionary way forward.
Environmental Impact Assessment 2020 draft
Recently, Modi’s government has been trying to pass legislation on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The draft is giving the capitalists a free ride on their environmentally destructive and polluting projects, eliminating public and local consultations. Such project approvals are restricted to the top bureaucracy, whom the ruling regime or capitalists can easily influence.
In 1986, the Bhopal Disaster occurred, in which the American chemical company Union Carbide Corporation (Dow Chemical subsidiary), in cahoots with Indian capitalists, massacred thousands of local people when poisonous gas leaked in the air from the plant. The Congress government made a tokenistic move to cool down people’s anger and passed an Environmental Protection Act 1986. Later, a more formal practice to assess the environmental impact of projects was started in 1994 in which they introduced public scrutiny. Over time, successive governments created numerous loopholes whereby capitalists could continue polluting the environment despite the legislation. Capitalists dole out cash in bribes to local politicians and the state bureaucracy to get their projects approved, which is considered the norm in India. Modi, during his time in opposition, termed such bribes as “Jayanthi tax” – after the name of the environment minister. However, the bribery did not stop in Modi’s era. Bureaucrats often run projects simply to haggle with the capitalists for huge bribes to oil the approval process: “red tape” as it is usually called. All this was being done at enormous cost to the environment.
Now, the Modi government is removing this fig leaf for the capitalists and has made the recent move to eliminate the need for environmental clearance through the new EIA 2020 draft. Through this draft, the Modi’s government has officiated corruption, offering the big capitalists a one-stop-shop for bribes to get their project listed as strategic. When a project is listed as such, the capitalists who own the project can hide all their activities officially: this includes buildings, roads, manufacturing, water projects, energy projects etc. Furthermore, deforestation thugs operating in the northeast green belt of India (Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram) in cahoots with local politicians are given a free ride to cut as many trees as they like to help the capitalists to install their projects within 100 km of the country’s border areas with Bangladesh, also including the whole state of Arunachal Pradesh bordering China. All this is a recipe for a vast environmental disaster if this draft is made into law.
All opposition parties leaders are showing their concerns about the draft only for their vested interests: they have no concern for the environment, as is clear from the track records of their stints in power. Opposition parties see this policy as an attack on their influence and bribe income at a regional level. Local bureaucracies and regional parties dominating the states see their influence reduced, while large capitalists are given a free ride to ravage the environment.
The government, which always acts as the stooge of capitalists, have to give the impression that they care about the ‘involvement of the people’. But the present crisis is laying bare the real face of capitalism and has exposed the fundamental role of governments, who are the executive arm of managing capitalist affairs. To start with, the call for people to get involved in this new policy was never clear and could not reach the masses, while the time given for consultation was also very short, ending on 11 August. Now, the Modi government is hellbent on implementing this draconian policy, which will have an enormous impact on the lives of, not only all the people living in India, but across the whole region. More floods and other natural disasters could be the direct outcome of this policy, along with severe heatwaves, smog and other poisonous atmospheric and climate events, leading to death for swathes of the population. Apart from humans, wildlife will suffer at the hands of brutal Indian capitalism, that will cause irreparable damage to the planet.
Pollution is the biggest cause of climate disasters in India. Out of the world’s top 30 most polluted cities, 21 are in India, according to the recent global PM2.5 levels report. However, in the same report, it says that data from India is ambiguous and underreported. A safe level of PM 2.5 is set around 10-12 microgram per cubic meter. However, most of the Indian cities on the list have levels up to 153 micrograms per cubic meter. This is way too dangerous to breathe.
The immense pollution in India occurs due to industrial emissions. Factories are operating outside the bounds of environmental and other laws. Factory owners never bother to treat emissions before letting them out in the air. It costs them money to do this, and that eats up their profits. The recent gas leak from a chemical plant in Visakhapatnam spread to areas in a five-kilometre radius, killing 11 people and affecting about 1,000. The Indian government has a mountain of legislation on pollution control. Still, when it comes to implementation, it must utilise the corrupt state machinery under the capitalist system. Factory owners often get through all kinds of inspections and avoid state fines through bribery, or otherwise showering money on the Indian judiciary.
The second largest pollution type is vehicle emissions. 1,400 new vehicles are added to Delhi roads alone every day: mainly run on diesel and petrol. A similar situation exists in other urban centres across the country. The logistical infrastructure is filled with worn-out and high emission trucks and tankers. The lack of public transport infrastructure and cheap car loans are responsible for an increase in private vehicles on roads.
Another, most recent pollution source was identified as burning unwanted crop plants in the district of Punjab. Farmers in Punjab burned their leftover harvest or stubble in November 2019 to clear their land, which created a massive environmental disaster across north-west India and neighbouring countries. Major cities and towns were filled with smog. For over two weeks, it was like smoking 200-300 cigarettes per day, for every person, just by breathing. The supreme court symbolically intervened in 2020, but still, no progress has been made to resolve this crisis.
Floods, droughts and food insecurity
Wherever there is a flood in India, it always impacts the poor. Officially, it was reported that about 900 people were killed in floods in August 2020 in 11 states across the country, including Assam. Furthermore, the recent landslide in the state of Kerala claimed 22 lives, with 44 persons unaccounted for. This was after the worst monsoon in the recent history in which 15 million people were affected, and 850 lost their lives according to figures from the Ministry of Home Affairs Disaster Management Division. There are also reports of a rise in COVID-19 cases among flood rescue workers.
At least 90 percent of Assam’s districts are flooded, and more than 50,000 people are in relief camps as a result. People living in poverty always occupy city land areas (which are vulnerable to floods) because it is cheap for them to live there. The same is true for people living on riverbanks, including fishing communities.
Uncontrolled construction and urban expansion by private builders increase the chances of floods from heavy rains. Rainwater remains on the surface and runs off when building works replace loose soil. Small streets act as speedy water flowing channels. Furthermore, the drainage system comes to a total halt, and water remains on the surface for a long time. Riverbanks are weak and never maintained. They immediately break, causing the river to flood in neighbouring towns and villages.
Technology and the latest city planning methods can avert the problem of floods. However, neither the government nor capitalists are interested in protecting the lives and properties of poor people. Floods have cost India 4.7 lakh crore INR (627 billion USD) in the last six decades. While India experiences floods during monsoons, water scarcity affects an even larger part of the country. A government report found that 600 million Indians – nearly half the population – are facing acute water shortages. Three-quarters of people do not have drinking water in their homes. The report by government body NITI Aayog states that, by 2030, India’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply.
In villages, the impact of drought is severe. Arable lands have turned into water-scarce lands, uncultivable and contributing to extreme levels of poverty in rural India. Millions of farmers are struggling to stay alive due to crop failures. About 10 farmers commit suicide daily because of economic issues, often related to unproductive land. Farmer suicide rates usually increase during a drought year. This is fuelling migrant labour and increasing urbanisation. 80 percent of districts in Karnataka and 70 percent in Maharashtra have been declared drought-affected. A report says that about 6,000 tankers supply water to 15,000 villages and settlements in Maharashtra alone. 21 Major cities, including Delhi and Bangalore, are forecasted to run out of groundwater in the next two to three years. About 100 million people across India are at the forefront of a nationwide water crisis. Groundwater has been steadily depleting for years, and it makes up 40 percent of India’s water supply.
Technology and innovation can solve the problem of drought. Furthermore, in the 21st century, clean and drinkable water can be supplied to all homes. However, under this capitalist system, investment in these areas to improve people’s lives is not profitable. Why invest in improving agriculture when you cannot make much money from selling crops? Why invest in bringing drinking water to poor people’s homes through pipes when they can fetch water from a distant source? Why solve the water issue when the water tanker mafia is making billions of rupees by selling water to people, and the mineral water bottle mafia is making even more astronomical profits? These questions obviously cannot be resolved under the present capitalist system that puts profits before people.
Heatwaves – living hell for workers
Last year saw 484 heatwaves across India. This is a massive increase from just 21 in 2010. Official figures reported 5,000 deaths resulting from heatwaves. Real figures are much higher. The highest ever temperature of 48 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit) was recorded in Delhi in June 2020. At the same time, Rajasthan broke the national record with 50.6 Celsius (123 Fahrenheit). In Bihar, five days of intense heat killed 100 people this year, and schools and other institutions were closed for five days.
Extreme hot weather creates a hellish situation for workers, who are forced to work in the scorching heat, or else they and their families will starve. There are no holidays for workers during extreme heat. By contrast, capitalist class have well-built, heat-insulated houses with air conditioners running 24/7. They even have energy drinks and seasonal fruits to keep themselves hydrated and healthy, while the poor cannot access drinking water during the day and do not have electricity for even a fan to get some relief.
During extreme heat, the government does not even order a stoppage of work for health and safety reasons, especially in construction and industries with hot and humid environments, like textiles dyeing and printing. Even if the government gives an order, its directive is not followed and not helpful for daily wage labourers and zero-hours contract workers under the present system.
Deforestation is happening in India on a massive scale. Trees have entirely disappeared in places that were considered forests a decade back.
The net loss of tree cover was 16,744 square kilometers between 2000-2018. 74 percent of the loss occurred in north-eastern states such as Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Manipur. It is estimated that around a fifth of the population, especially tribal communities, depend on forests for their livelihood and subsistence. 70 percent of the data on deforestation is not reported to the government, according to the media. Capitalists collaborate with the government to cut down forests to build their mines, factories and other projects. Most of the capitalists do this without giving notice, and build illegal coal mines and cement factories in the middle of forests by cutting down a massive number of trees, especially in Meghalaya and Assam.
Another menace is the timber mafia operating in forests alongside local organised gangs. The mafia cut down trees indiscriminately to fuel construction in large urban centres, and funeral businesses across the country. These crooks have strong links with the government and local militias, who ensure an unregulated and smooth operation. While India is among the top 10 countries in the world in deforestation rate, it is also the third in the world when it comes to importing illegally logged wood, with an annual import value of over 40 billion INR (533 million USD) according to the International Union of Forest Research Organisations.
Extreme weather and climate migration
Climate change is also impacting the occurrence of extreme weather events. It is reported that, by the end of the century, the number of unusually warm days and nights in the country is likely to be 55-70 percent higher compared to the average number between 1976 and 2005. Heatwave frequency will increase by four times, contributing to the rapid spread of disease, overwhelming the wrecked public health infrastructure. Already, the public health sector is among the worst in the world, unable to control simple diseases, let alone new menaces like COVID-19.
Extreme weather events also include huge bursts of torrential rain. We have seen an increasing severity in floods, cyclones, hailstorms etc. According to official figures released by the India Meteorological Department, about 1,500 were killed in 2019 due to high impact weather. However, the real figure is much higher. There were 74 percent more extreme rainfall events than the previous year. Forest fires increased 113 percent from previous years, and just in one year, the country saw seven deadly cyclones: the highest number since 1985.
All these extreme weather events inflict a substantial economic and social loss on local populations, especially the poor. The rich can escape the adversities of extreme weather events easily through mobilising their accumulated wealth, through which they can buy their comfort. Furthermore, they can buy healthcare services from expensive private hospitals. It is the poor and working class who always suffer in these extreme weather events. The International Displacement Monitoring Centre reported that extreme weather events in India displaced about 4.3 million people in 2019.
The inability of the system to control human-induced climate change and above that, the inability of the government to protect people from its result, is forcing people to migrate to other places to live or to work. Jobs are disappearing from climate-vulnerable regions. People are travelling hundreds and even thousands of miles to seek work and settle, contributing to massive uncontrolled urbanisation. There are 450 million internal migrants in India, as per the most recent 2011 census. This is an increase of 45 percent over the 309 million recorded in 2001. In Uttarakhand, flooding and constant rain triggered a mass migration of rural communities. According to 2011 census figures of 16,793 villages in Uttarakhand, 1,053 have no inhabitants, and 405 villages have less than 10 residents. Other states face a similar situation.
City and state governments in large urban centres are incapable of coping with the massive influx of migrant labour and settlers. They cannot provide them with proper housing, food, sanitation, utilities, education and other infrastructure. All services come at a high cost, which the government cannot afford, nor can they force capitalists to provide affordably. The ‘Bombay dream’ has become a Mumbai nightmare for millions in the last two decades. Climate migrants remain below the poverty line for long periods. The majority never escape destitution. Poverty, hunger, diseases, homelessness, economic instability, racism, rapes and murders are the fate of migrant labour for many years to come. The system cannot even take care of settled locals properly, and migrant labourers and their families are economically more vulnerable.
The recent disaster of Modi’s unplanned lockdown during the COVID-19 emergency was a colossal blow for migrant workers across the country. Thousands of people had to walk back to their towns and villages from cities where they could not survive during the lockdown. Many walked barefoot with kids and elderly parents along with them for thousands of miles, and many died on the way. It was the largest migration in a short period of time since the division of India in 1947. Many carried coronavirus with them to the villages where there are no hospitals or any other health services available. In cities, workers are facing massive unemployment, hunger and misery during the lockdown and pandemic. According to one estimate, 400 million more people may fall below the poverty line during this crisis, which will have far-reaching impacts on the whole society. The refuge of cities might not be accessible or possible for the people now being affected by climate disasters and they will be left to the mercy of these natural calamities, which are the direct result of the policies of the ruling class, including the profit-hungry capitalists of India.
Disappearing glaciers, rising oceans and the extinction of marine life
India is vulnerable to ice melting in the Himalayas as most of its rivers come from there. According to climate reports, even with global warming of 1.5oC, a third of the ice is going to melt in the Himalayas by 2100. This will impact 2 billion people in the South Asian region, mostly the poor. The Himalayas contain glaciers that are critical water stores for the 1.65 billion people who rely on the rivers that flow from the peaks into neighbouring countries.
Glaciers in the Himalayas, which are traditionally more stable, are now facing the threat of global warming.
The disappearing glaciers will push the boundaries of water flows into rivers, resulting in the bursting of banks and devastating villages and towns with floods. By 2060, major rivers will start declining and small rivers disappearing, exacerbating the challenges of drought.
Fast melting of ice directly impacts the rise in sea levels. India’s coastline is about 7,500 km long and includes nine states. Major coastal towns include state capitals inhabited by 560 million people who are directly under threat from rising sea levels.
Like glaciers melting, the oceans have risen consistently, but now at a much faster rate. According to the IPCC report, the global mean sea level rise was 1.4mm a year from 1901 to 1990, and it rose to 2.1mm a year in 1970-1992. The rise accelerated to 3.2mm a year between 1993 and 2005, and 3.6mm a year between 2006 and 2015. The future situation is even worse as the mean sea levels are expected to rise steadily, hitting around half a metre by 2100. Coastal towns and islands will already start facing extreme sea levels before 2050. No adequate and reliable data is available on the extent of devastation to coastal towns and cities resulting from rising sea levels.
There has been a significant decline in fish catches since the last 2019-2020 monsoon season, as confirmed by the Central Marine Fisheries of India (CMFRI). Data reveals that there has been a 9 percent decline in the overall fish catch in 2018 compared to the previous year. These are conservative estimates, and the reality is even worse. Sardines suffered a 54 percent decline in the same period in Karnataka and 39 percent in Kerala regions. Sardines are the main contributor to the Indian marine fish catch. The rise in ocean surface temperature is killing nutrients such as Phytoplankton: a significant source of food for ocean fish, including sardines.
Another major contributor is corporate fish farming. Large companies have ventured into ocean fish farming, with their mega trawlers operating all year round. The state of Karnataka has banned bull trawling since December, but due to rampant corruption, there is no change in trawling. State officials admit that it is impossible to control.
The state has no resources to control illegal fishing either. There has been a massive rise in the number of boats, especially large ones. Individual fishermen with small boats are regularly fined. However, large boats and trawlers operate freely outside the law. The legislation did not help to increase or sustain the fish catch levels. The constant decline in fish is impacting the fishermen communities across all coastal towns in India, as the following testimony demonstrates:
“‘We are the Mogaveera, the original tribe of fishermen, born to protect the seashore’, explained Shriyan (the fisherman). ‘And we are being pushed to the brink of desperation. There is nothing in the sea for us. The capitalists are taking everything. And the government is not helping,’ he added.” (Mongabay India, 18/02/20)
Ocean warming is pushing fish too far from the coasts. They are often tricky to catch in deep water, where they have to be fished using long haul boats. Such warming effects also disturb fish breeding cycles and contribute to their extinction, because of the misalignment with their food production cycle. Fishermen in several areas are abandoning fishing altogether.
However, the majority of fishermen are abandoning their boats and hopping onto giant trawlers for a meagre wage. They are becoming wage-labourers of the fishing capitalists. Their daily wage depends on the amount they catch. If they fall below the target catch, they get no pay. Currently, fishermen receive 1,000 rupees for every 100,000 fish caught by trawlers. Furthermore, with the ever-increasing number of devastated fishermen offering their labour services to trawlers, they’re lucky if they get 4-5 days of work per month: not even enough to live on. Since December 2019, the situation is getting worse. Another threat of deep-sea fishing is that fishermen often cross international maritime boundary lines and are attacked by Pakistani and Sri Lankan Navy ships. They are also often arrested on spying charges.
Ocean warming is not the only factor contributing to the fishing problems. In the last 15 years, there has been immense industrialisation in India and factories are releasing dangerous effluents into rivers that ultimately flow into the ocean. Furthermore, large scale illegal sand dredging due to the growing demands of the construction sector is pushing fish away from shallow waters.
The government cannot meddle with the corporate affairs of fishing giants, chemical companies and the construction mafia. These companies get a free ride, as they have enough capital to bribe government officials, influence state regulations and eliminate small competitors to dominate the sector and continue their environmental destruction unchecked.
The failure of capitalism
The scale of problems associated with climate change in India is enormous. It is a problem for which working-class people are not responsible. People are becoming less secure economically, and their health is deteriorating. They are becoming more vulnerable to disease and have to migrate to avoid climate crises in their regions. Large capitalists are responsible for climate disasters, and not only in India. Under this capitalist system, governments are impotent and have no interest in addressing climate issues by, for instance, controlling emissions and minimising the impact of climate crises on people.
Under the private ownership of the means of production, it is impossible to appeal to private profiteering companies to take care of the climate. The name and shame strategy, as adopted by some media outlets, also can never work on the shameless capitalists. They will continue to invest their money on environmentally destructive activities and will profit from the consequences of climate change.
Government energy subsidies are also not working, as more subsidies are handed out to fossil fuel companies than to clean energy companies. In 2019, the Indian government spent 12.37 billion USD on oil, gas, and coal subsidies. By contrast, it spends 1.5 billion USD on renewable energy subsidies in the same year. The state-subsidies are not working for the working class, but only benefit wealthy capitalists. People do not see their energy bills reduced nor their air cleaned. Almost all manufacturing industries are privately owned in India. They hardly share any accurate emission data with the government. Also, they never bother to treat their emissions. They have resources to bribe government officials responsible for environmental inspections, and they can influence politicians and other policymakers through their business associations.
The profit system is to blame. Competition is key to capitalism. When one factory cuts costs and starts polluting the environment, everybody must do that. Otherwise, they will be driven out of business by market forces. Making the environment clean by installing clean technologies would not make any business sense as it will eat into profits. Government subsidies for clean technologies are ineffective because state money is drained by corruption, without any meaningful outcome.
There is sufficient data, information and evidence to identify climate change and its impact. Furthermore, science and technology have reached such levels that climate change can be addressed, and people can be secured from environmental disasters to a larger extent. But under this capitalist system, there is no appetite to invest and deploy such technologies to benefit all people. The government is happily bailing out the banks and large businesses with vast sums of money to boost their profits, but when it comes to helping people, there is no money. There are tokenistic state interventions in immediate climate emergencies, without any meaningful help, considering the scale of the crisis.
Even during the climate crisis, capitalists make money. It is always the poor that must pay for the crisis with their houses, health, jobs, lifestyle, and income. Whether it's state subsidies or green taxes, the poor must pay. Already, green and sustainable living is out of the reach of the poor working class, including, houses, food, green spaces, water, and clean air.
The mainstream political parties have no solution to the climate crisis in India. Despite countless meetings, conventions and proposed legislation, nothing improves. All parties, including BJP, AAP Congress, TNC, Communist parties etc., put addressing the climate in their election manifestos. But these are just hollow promises, never meant to be fulfilled. The moral and economic bankruptcy of these political parties, who are all committed to capitalism, means they can’t solve anything.
Workers’ struggle and the way forward
Numerous protests are emerging in India on issues related to the climate. Recently, farmers protested in Punjab, seeking state intervention over their harvests, and against the corporatisation of agriculture. Fishermen protested in areas like Nagapattinam and Rameswaram, calling for a nationwide strike against the government fishery policy 2020 that discourages small-scale fishing and allows corporate companies to operate in the deep sea. In November 2019, a lot of people protested the Delhi government’s inaction on controlling pollution in the city.
Rather than investing in the energy sector to make it more green, sustainable, and affordable for people, the Indian government planned to privatise the whole sector through its Electricity Amendment Bill 2020. This is a farfetched plan to decarbonise the energy sector. This was met with strikes of electricity workers against the bill.
Protests are also happening on social media among youth and students, forming a virtual human chain against the EIA 2020 Draft. There have been calls from various political parties, including Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi, urging people to protest against the new EIA 2020 Draft. However, Congress when in power immensely liberalised the economy and brought in the most environmentally destructive industries. Furthermore, the Communist parties always support one bourgeoise party or the other when it comes to environmentally destructive policies and practices. They adhere to Stalinist two-stage theory and are adamant about supporting capitalists at the cost of the environment. The climate strikes are often occupied by NGOs and liberals who are doing nothing but derailing the climate movement into a blind alley. They are not challenging the capitalist system that is responsible for climate disasters and inactions on mitigations.
The working class suffers most from the climate crisis, and the solution also lies with the working class. All protests, whether it may be students or other sections of the society, should connect with the working class. No individual and isolated actions can avert the climate crisis, particularly when corporations are responsible for most of the emissions. Going vegan or changing consumer behaviours and choices have quite a limited impact. A small action by corporations to destroy the environment can neutralise millions of individual actions to save it.
Corporations do not care about the planet. They will churn out products more than what is required and deliberately develop obsolescence into their products to increase their sales. Rich people buy into consumerism and hence are responsible for environmental crises. Statistics show that the top one percent are responsible for 175 times the pollution caused by people in the bottom 10 percent. Emission inequality is inherent within capitalism.
Only collective action involving the working class to overturn the capitalist system can address the climate crises. Profit motives are driving the climate crisis not only in India but in the whole world. Only a rational plan of production under socialism can ensure a safe and clean environment for people to live and thrive. This can be won only by overthrowing capitalism through the united action of the working class of India that is suffering from this bloodthirsty system and is filled with seething hatred against all its crimes. The attack on the climate by the ruling class is a lethal one. Every human being with a conscience must fight back, and join the struggle of Marxists in India and the whole world.