India following a global trend of forsaking environment protection for “national security,” paper says

  • The U.S., Mexico, Poland and India have suspended environmental laws in favour of national security interests, which reduces transparency and reduces scope for public input, says a new paper.
  • In India, changes to the Forest (Conservation) Act and projects such as the development of Great Nicobar Island prioritise national security interests over conservation interests.
  • Science diplomacy can be used as a tool for various stakeholders to cooperate for balancing national security and conservation interests.

When the Indian government decided to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act earlier this year, it exempted certain “national security” projects from its purview, which activists, researchers, and environmentalists claimed subverted the very purpose of a law meant to restrict activity in forest areas. A new paper, published in the journal Conservation Biology, suggests India isn’t alone in prioritising its national security and interests over environmental protection, which, it observes, is something of a global trend.

The paper, Threats to conservation from national security interests, cites recent evidence from Poland, Mexico, India and the United States, among other countries, to say that using national security as a reason to circumvent environmental laws is “setting back the legal protection of nature.” This has impacts not only on conservation, but in certain instances has also affected democratic freedoms and principles, the paper, by a multi-country team of researchers, says.

Most global conventions and pacts on protecting the environment also recognise the importance of safeguarding biodiversity, democratic freedoms and indigenous rights. The recently adopted Global Biodiversity Framework, for example, seeks to restore and conserve global biological resources and emphasises a human rights approach. It was agreed to by 192 countries, including India.

But the imposition of national security as a way to suspend those rights opens the door to bypassing “environmental review processes and public input requirements in place for the protection of places like old growth forests, deserts and glaciers,” says the paper.

“We wanted to demonstrate how geopolitics is so intricately linked to conservation and how patterns of violating environmental laws are so similar globally,” said Anwesha Dutta, senior researcher at Norway’s Chr. Michelsen Institute and co-author of the paper.

The Mexican gray wolf and Sonoran pronghorn were both affected by habitat fragmentation due to the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Photo by Amyyfory/Wikimedia Commons.

In India, advisory committees granting clearance to projects have often invoked both national security and national interest as reasons for their approval. These projects range from linear infrastructure to the construction of large hydropower projects. The terminology of why certain projects are granted exemptions from environmental norms is important, the paper says, because “the line between national security and national interest is becoming increasingly blurred, with their misuse resulting in abuse of authority.”

Spending on ‘national security’ versus the environment

According to the researchers, “an emphasis on national security and defense is occuring at the cost of nature.” The United Nations Environmental Programme said G20 countries would need to invest between $120 and $285 billion annually to halt climate, biodiversity and land degradation. Spending on military needs, on the other hand, has grown by 3.5 percent every year since 2015, the paper finds, “reaching a record high of $2240 billion,” over 80 percent of which was by G20 countries.

The researchers’ own analysis, comparing military expenditure from 33 countries, including India, with data on environmental policy stringency (EPS) from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), found the rate of expenditure on the latter (EPS) slowed from 6.8 percent and 8 percent in 1990-2000 and 2000-2010 to 1.1 percent from 2010-2020. Military expenditure, by contrast, spiked steeply 2015 onwards, indicating “a growing mismatch between investment in environmental regulation and investment in military, with potential adverse environmental consequences, and negative impacts on national security as well.”

A 2022 report by the Transnational Institute found that between 2013 and 2021, the richest countries in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change spent $9.45 trillion on the military, 56.3% of total global military spending ($16.8 trillion) compared to an estimated $243.9 billion on additional climate finance.

Impacts of suspending environment laws

Projects implemented in the name of national security can have unintended consequences on ecosystems, the paper observes.

For example, when the border wall between the United States of America and Mexico was erected in 2019, animal species such as the Mexican gray wolf and Sonoran pronghorn, “both subjects of decades-long joint binational recovery programs,” were negatively impacted by a fragmented habitat. “In 2021, a GPS satellite collared wolf traveled 37 km along the border wall but was unable to cross into Mexico,” the paper states.

Army personnel have been stationed at Siachen glacier even though a ceasefire was signed in 2003. Photo by Ministry of AYUSH, Government of India/Wikimedia Commons.

Similarly, a border erected by the Polish government in 2021 in reaction to an influx of migrants from Belarus, ran through the Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site, without any mitigation measures. “Laws forgone include the European Union (EU) Habitats Directive, EU Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive, Bern Convention, and Polish national laws such as the Water Law, Environmental Law,” and several other regulations, the paper notes. The Polish government withdrew its emergency declaration last year, but “detrimental impacts on sensitive habitats, species, and populations — for example of wolf, lynx and moose — remain unmitigated,” says the paper.

“For several projects, which may legitimately be needed, the problem lies in how it is being done,” said Dutta, adding, “Often the states do not have enough safeguards for conservation and human rights when they do these projects, where a lot of this interest remains very commercial.”

Projects of national interest are also departing from concerns strictly tied to borderlands and defence. Large infrastructure projects, including for energy, are also enjoying exemptions from environmental law, according to the paper.

A 1500-kilometre railway track meant to boost tourism and connect five Mexican states was declared in the interest of national security by president Andrés Manuel López Obrador and it was thus exempted from environmental assessments. The railway line will fragment the second largest intact tropical rainforest in the Americas, the Selva Maya, “which contains the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” says the paper. It also is likely to impact over 1000 indigenous communities and threaten to displace them.

President Obrador also likened an oil refinery project to the protection of Mexico’s national sovereignty. “Sovereignty could thus be a legitimizing tactic for furthering big infrastructure plans for energy, defense, and freedom from hostile neighbors, irrespective of associated environmental harms or lack of approval,” says the paper.

In a recent essay, César Rodríguez-Garavito, chair of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University and Arpitha Kodiveri, environmental lawyer and assistant professor of Political Science at Vassar College, describe how authoritarian governments weaken environmental democracy by systematically diluting environmental regulation, co-opting regulatory bodies, or defunding them entirely.

“The idea of national security as an exception to environmental norms needs to be seen within a larger context of rising authoritarianism, where the values of environmental democracy are themselves being attacked,” said Kodiveri, who was not part of the paper’s research team. “These values challenge state decision making, which becomes a hurdle for governments in the road to quick decision making.”

National security and the environment in India

The paper draws on three examples from India to demonstrate how national security interests overtake environmental safeguards. The decades-long occupation of the Siachen glacier – declared a critical site to global conservation by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – has led to the “dumping of enormous amounts of human and military waste into these crevasses, altering and polluting the englacial microbial community and rivers that originate from the snout of the glacier.”

The Great Nicobar Development Project, which envisions a transshipment port, airport, township and gas and solar power plants, will result in the felling of over eight lakh trees as well as the denotification of tribal settlements. The government has defended the project amid opposition by environmentalists, saying it will boost tourism, aid development of the region, and improve the country’s national security. “India’s geopolitical security continues to be underscored over socio-ecological concerns,” the paper notes.

The recent amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act also explicitly exempt projects within 100 kilometres of international borders which are “proposed to be used for construction of strategic linear projects of national importance and concerning national security.” Several states have opposed the changes to the law, arguing that their entire land masses would be made exempt.

According to Krithika Dinesh, a lawyer who tracks changes in India’s environmental regulations, exemptions to environmental law have been introduced since 2009, but rapidly increased since 2014. “For many of these exemptions, all these terms have been used – strategic national interest, public interest, public utility – without them being really defined or clarified by the government,” she said. Dinesh is not associated with the paper. Granting exemptions to projects in the interest of national security “adds an additional layer for the government to curb any sort of political opinion. If there are objections to projects for national security purposes, then it can sometimes be viewed as an objection to the state itself,” she said.

Citing evidence from India, when the Indian chapter of environmental activist group Fridays for Future was served a legal notice under India’s anti-terror law, among others, the paper states that disregarding environmental laws coupled with emergency measures for national security “can undermine the foundations of democratic principles and protocols, public input and transparency.”

‘Science diplomacy’ as a solution

The researchers recommend conservationists, social scientists and others working in the field of environmentalism work together by engaging in “science diplomacy as a tool for cooperation.”

“A cautious revival of peace parks as a global initiative warrants attention to revive momentum toward cross-boundary cooperation without domination of national interests, with communities as partners and leaders, and a rights-based approach to tackle sensitive border dynamics like illicit flows of goods and migrants,” says the paper.

“Governments, when challenged, are more likely to take suggestions on board which they view as being more apolitical in nature. The key to this is forming strong alliances within communities,” said Dutta.

According to Kodiveri, domestic litigation is a promising way to challenge national security interests when it is being used as a tool to regulate environmental laws or not properly implement them. “Science diplomacy is important to achieve scale, but maybe both science diplomacy and strategic litigation are needed for more effective action.”


Banner image: Great Nicobar Island. Photo by Rama Narayanan H/Wikimedia Commons.

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