- In 2021, the morbidity and mortality of the second wave of COVID-19, shook the entire country’s conscience.
- There was hope that there would be a rethink on how the country looked at the environment and the economy. But this introspection doesn’t seem to have happened.
- At Mongabay-India, all through 2021, we meticulously documented the status of the country’s environment and future hopes and challenges.
- With over 500 stories, maps, videos and webinars, we shone the light on developments in energy transition, biodiversity, climate change and more. Take a look at our top stories of the year.
The year 2021 was one of swinging national sentiment in India. The year started with a misplaced optimism that India had overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, even while many other countries were suffering the impact of the second wave. This turned to despair by the middle of the year, when the second wave of the pandemic hit the country hard, with accounted and unaccounted deaths mounting at homes, hospitals and in many places in between. After the second wave subsided, there was optimism again in a recovering economy in the later months.
As the year closes, there is anxiety again with the Omicron variant threatening a third wave. The hope, however, is that this much-mutated variant may not cause as severe morbidity or mortality like the previous onslaughts, though it may spread widely.
In 2021, the national government continued with the focus on core sector and infrastructure growth that it had initiated at the end of the COVID-19 first wave in mid-2020. There was much interest to develop infrastructure for tourism in the ecologically-sensitive island groups.
In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the eco-sensitive zones were almost totally obliterated, which in turn could affect the unique biodiversity of the archipelago. The Lakshadweep Islands on the west face similar threats, raising the hackles of experts who have studied the unique biodiversity of the coral atolls over decades. In fact, new species continue to be discovered from these islands.
Irrespective of political colour, state governments too followed similar paths during the year. In Kerala, for instance, a government order permitting felling of trees on private land raised controversy. Later in the year, as the state elections strengthened the hands of the incumbent government, the idea of a semi-high speed train project running across the state was announced, which continues to rake an environmental controversy.
In Goa, the Supreme Court-appointed panel recommended the cancellation of railway track doubling and electrical transmission line corridor widening to prevent impact on a national park. In Jammu and Kashmir, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered the National Highway Authority of India to keep aside money to restore the channels of the Tawi and Chenab rivers, that have been choked with debris due to highway construction.
Delayed global meetings
Since 2020 was lost to the pandemic, the important conference of parties (COPs) related to multilateral environmental agreements that were scheduled for 2020 were moved to 2021. The COP26 to the climate change convention, held at Glasgow, the UK, in November got international attention, especially the announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attain Net Zero by 2070. Further, India announced solar power grids across countries and demanded climate justice.
While our coverage during the COP26 looked at issues such as loss and damage, youth action, gender issues, urban resilience and even climate disinformation, we also reported that in the ultimate analysis the Glasgow Climate Pact was a disappointment.
Like the climate change meeting, the COP15 related to the Convention on Biological Diversity was also held partially in 2021 instead of 2020, at Kunming in China. We explained the linkages between the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and the realities of reporting urban biodiversity through a training workshop for journalists.
Read more: Multimedia stories we told in 2021
The yin and yang on energy transition
At Glasgow the prime minister enhanced India’s ambition on transition to energy from renewable sources. He stated that by 2030 India will have 500 GW of energy from non-fossil fuel sources, which will also meet 50 percent of the country’s energy requirement. Earlier, the commitment was 450 GW.
At Mongabay-India, we marked India reaching the milestone of 100 GW installed capacity with a webinar, and assessed whether the country would be able to meet the 2022 targets. We looked at the policy flip-flops and challenges – import heaviness of solar technology, land conflicts, centralisation of capital, declining subsidy support and increasing financial challenges.
We assessed the status of different technologies and options – wind, biomass, rooftop solar and tidal power. We looked at the progress, or otherwise, in different states – Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Telangana, Odisha, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. In Punjab, despite programmes to encourage farmers and entrepreneurs to use paddy straw for generating electricity, it continues to be burnt in the fields causing air pollution in Delhi. Our writing also reminded that though renewable energy is a green option, there is a need to avoid the problems that the fossil fuel sector faced.
However, even while the national government has been supporting the growth of the renewable energy sector, it also continued the support for the fossil fuel sector. Our stories analysed how the mining sector was given a single-window clearance, eased public hearing rules and how the government could use the coal shortage to improve the ease of doing business. We articulated the reality of nearly 40 percent of India’s districts having some form of coal dependency.
We also checked out where the district mineral foundation funds – meant for rehabilitating the mining affected – is going. Our reporting articulated the invisible burden of mining on women, and how mining widows are forced back into the mines due to the lack of alternatives. We explored how the mining-affected are using art to express their anger and frustration.
While one of our contributors reported from the India’s oldest mines in the Raniganj coalfields in Jharkhand, another reported from Deocha-Pachami in West Bengal where a large coalmine is set to be operational. We covered the dark world of white clay.
Our story from Goa reported how a once water-rich village became dependent on tankers after mining started there. This story had a positive impact though – the authorities established a water pipeline to the village. A map-supported story reported the impact of stone quarrying in the Brahmagiri mountains on the Godavari catchment.
Biodiversity and climate change
As a prequel to the Glasgow COP, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the report of the First Working Group of the Assessment Report 6 (AR6-WG1). This working group looked at the physical science basis of climate change, and its prognosis for India was discouraging – there would be more frequent and more intense extreme weather events. Globally, the report reminded that out of the 1.5° C set till the end of the Century, the world had already heated 1.1° C.
There are already indications of extreme weather events. After a hiatus of six years, Chennai flooded again. Again, the city was reminded of its neglect of wetlands and forest patches and the spreading of built-up areas. Research studies found that the drought that hit southern India between 2016 and 2018 is considered the worst in 150 years. Flash droughts and floods are also likely to increase in the future, affecting the agricultural economy. Already, climate-related agrarian distress was one of the issues that resulted in the long-standing farmers’ protest this year.
While the home gardens of Kerala provide natural protection to farmers, their counterparts in Bihar took to cultivating makhana (foxnut) to deal with weather unreliability. Cultivating traditional climate-resilient varieties, such as Pokkali rice could hold the key in some locations.
However, the disappearance of traditional varieties over the recent decades has led to a cultural impact. For instance, in Assam, it is impossible to celebrate Bihu with the traditional 101 varieties of herbs and greens. We reported about seaweed farming in Goa and on the potential of agroforestry in dealing with climate change.
We celebrated the lives of the invisible urban farmers of Mumbai, who despite all the odds continue farming within the limits of the metropolis, and we wrote about the food system of the Khasi community in Meghalaya which is climate-resilient. We reported how the urban sacred groves of Sikkim are double that of a rural forest. We also reported a story of great policy impact – how the national rural employment guarantee scheme has great potential for carbon sequestration.
We focused on the importance of conserving grasslands – an ecosystem that is otherwise neglected in decision making. We started from the urban nerve centre of Bengaluru and wrote about the ecological importance of protecting the Hesaraghatta lakebed. In an interview ecologist Mahesh Shankaran told us that tree planting in savannah grasslands can harm biodiversity and adversely affect soil carbon storage.
In southern Tamil Nadu, we documented the importance of mapping grasslands to protect them; and in the central Indian Deccan Plateau, we argued that the yellow-throated bulbul could be an appropriate mascot for conservation. We emphasized the importance of getting the process right for conserving grasslands.
While we reported on how a court order restoring community forest rights over the Banni grasslands to the Maldhari pastoralists in Kutch, Gujarat was a step in the right direction; we also noted that the Van Gujjars of the Shivalik Range suffer due to the non-implementation of these rights. We reported on the beneficial impact of grazing in the alpine meadows of Sikkim.
We also focused on mangroves. With the Kochi urban complex spreading into the adjoining estuarine islands, the mangrove patches are continuously being converted to urban landscapes. There is an ecological cost to this, with new research proving that mangroves absorb significant amounts of carbon even in their fragmented form. We also brought a story of promise – of the children of late Kallen Pokkuden, an intrepid mangrove conservationist from Kannur in Kerala, reviving their father’s work. We reiterated the need for intensifying the study on the role of mangroves in climate mitigation.
Of rivers and an eco-guardian felled by COVID
Narmada is considered one of the most beautiful rivers in the country. Flowing through a rift valley in between the Vindhya and Satpura hills, the river was once the location of one of the country’s most well-known environmental movements. We reported on a study that highlighted the environmental damage at the origin of Narmada. On the other hand, Ganga has turned into a highway of plastic and microplastic pollution.
In the year 2021, the leading environmental voice protesting the Tehri Dam in the upper reaches of Sunderlal Bahuguna died due to COVID-19 complications. Bahuguna was also the leader of the Chipko Movement of the 1970s for preventing the felling of forests in the Garhwal Himalayas.
Bahuguna lost his life during the second wave of the pandemic, which had a heavy loss of lives in the country. Since the morbidity and mortality of this wave shook the entire country’s conscience, including that of the opinion-shaping middle class, there was a hope that there would be a rethink on how the country looked at the environment and the economy. However, that introspection doesn’t seem to have happened, as India apprehensively waits for the Omicron wave at the end of the year.
Banner image: Anandan Paithalen points at the mangroves planted by his father, Kallen Pokkudan, in Kannur, Kerala. Photo by J U Bhavapriya/Mongabay.