India’s tigers are in danger. In the year since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government has laid siege to the country’s environmental laws, threatening to undo recent conservation successes that have increased tiger numbers. India is the planet’s last stronghold for tigers, home to almost three-quarters of the 3,200 that remain in the wild across Asia.
Tigers have survived and prospered here because of increased protection and government efforts to relocate villages outside reserves, giving the big cats more space. A recent government census counted 2,226, a 30 percent increase in four years, and though researchers questioned the survey’s methods, there’s no question that tiger numbers are up.
But the Modi government’s aggressive focus on development threatens both the cats’ future and the nation’s environment. India is razing forests and flooding them with dams, giving the go-ahead for new mines and pushing rapid industrialization. The 2015 budget cut funding for the environment ministry by 25 percent and support for tiger protection by 15 percent.
At an international business meeting, the prime minister vowed to make India the “easiest” place to do business, noting, “we need the enabling policy framework.”
Toward that end, the government is moving swiftly and systematically to alter environmental regulations. Last August, a high level government committee was given the impossible task of reviewing the country’s major environmental laws and suggesting overhauls, all within a few months. Most of the committee members lacked environmental expertise, recommendations were not reviewed by independent authorities and most outside input was “invited.”
The resulting report recommended radical changes to the country’s legal framework governing forests, wildlife, the environment, water, air and land rights that would fast-track coal mines, dams, roads, railways and other projects. The Modi government is now drafting changes to those environmental laws.
The environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, claims that his goal is “development without destruction.” Yet proposed projects would bring widespread devastation of land and forests.
Among them is a river-diversion scheme that would submerge nearly one-third of the Panna Tiger Reserve, a project that had been shelved by Jairam Ramesh, the environment minister under the previous national government, who had called it a “disastrous” idea. A road that runs along the edge of the Pench Tiger Reserve is slated to become a four-lane highway — without overpasses for wildlife at crucial crossings. New coal mines are planned for central India, where hundreds of tigers live in a string of reserves.
Over 125 dams have been proposed for northeast India’s mighty Brahmaputra River system, including the huge Dibang River project, which was twice rejected by the previous government because it would inundate pristine forest. One gem at risk from dams planned or being built is Kaziranga National Park, home to more than 100 tigers, huge elephant herds and Asia’s largest population of Indian one-horned rhinos.
Beyond current efforts to rewrite India’s environmental laws, the Modi government is also trying to limit expert and public participation in the process. “There’s been a lot of muzzling of voices,” said Mr. Ramesh, the former environmental minister. “Environmental activism is now seen as a threat to the country’s economic growth prospects.”
In January, the Ministry of Home Affairs prevented the Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai from flying to England, where she was scheduled to speak to members of Parliament about the impact of coal mining in India. The government then froze the group’s bank accounts, and in April, it canceled the registration of nearly 9,000 charities and advocacy groups.
Critics charge that other high level committee recommendations, if implemented, would be like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. Inspections would be curtailed and it would be left to businesses to voluntarily disclose their pollution and monitor their compliance. States would be given substantial power to approve development projects like dams, roads and mines. Critics worry that it is at the state level where the influence of private interests can hold powerful sway.
The committee also suggested barring the National Green Tribunal from weighing environmental impact in cases. The tribunal is among the most effective environmental courts in the world, the environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta said. “They want to curtail its power.”
This eco-backlash stems from an entrenched environment-versus-growth debate. But the claim that environmental regulation is straitjacketing the economy is unfounded. A vast majority of major development projects are approved, according to Mr. Dutta. Delays often stem from missing information or local corruption — not from over-regulation, he said.
India has a strong environmental legacy, with exemplary wildlife laws going back more than 40 years. The Constitution requires every citizen “to protect and improve the natural environment.” In 2010, India signed an international agreement pledging to do “everything possible to effectively manage, preserve, protect, and enhance habitats” of tigers.
India has done an incredible job creating 48 tiger reserves, but many are small green islands. Cats and other species can’t survive long-term without the few tenuous wildlife corridors that connect parks. Corridors allow tigers to establish their own territory, move, mate, hunt and escape monsoon flooding. Projects that bisect or eliminate them could spell doom for isolated populations.
Vast amounts of money and effort have been spent protecting the country’s tigers, with legions of rangers risking their lives. Safeguarding tigers has had far-reaching benefits. The forests they inhabit act as huge carbon vaults, provide buffers from flooding, clean the air and purify drinking water for millions of people.
Though tigers have increased, the land is in decline. India loses an average of 333 acres of forest daily. Two of its rivers (including the sacred Ganges) are among the world’s most polluted, and 13 of the 20 cities with the most polluted air are in India, with Delhi at No. 1.
Loosening rules under these circumstances, with the growing specter of climate change, seems unwise. “Maybe I’m exaggerating,” said Ashok Khosla, the first director of India’s Office of Environmental Planning and Coordination, “but it sounds to me as if we have a cliff ahead of us and we have our foot on the accelerator.”
India must, of course, develop. About two-thirds of its population lives on $2 a day or less and 400 million lack electricity. But “green accounting” must be part of the development equation. Dismembering protective laws will have untold consequences: The country will ultimately have to pay for short-term corporate profits with denuded land, polluted air, scarce, filthy water, ill health and the loss of its mighty national animal, the tiger.
Sharon Guynup is a journalist and the co-author, with the photographer Steve Winter, of Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat.