Representative photo: students wearing protective masks at a government school in Hyderabad, March 2020. Photo: Reuters/Vinod Babu.
Over the last nine months, the world has undergone colossal change. A once-in-a-century event, the COVID-19 pandemic has touched every human life, by way of illness, hardship or uncertainty. Across the globe, millions have lost their homes, jobs, livelihoods and loved ones. Nations have been ravaged, some more than others. In India, the government enforced a two-month lockdown, bringing the country to a near standstill. While many were confined to their homes, over 100 million migrant workers were stranded in unfamiliar cities without wages, adequate food rations or medical supplies.
Studies suggest that zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 are linked to anthropogenic environmental influences such as land-use change and biodiversity loss. In response, the international community is encouraging countries to restructure their environmental governance and policy frameworks. Unfortunately, these efforts have not borne fruit in India.
During the early months of the pandemic, the Indian government had introduced multiple detrimental changes to the environmental policy paradigm. These include:
* Regressive amendments to the Environment Impact Assessment notification;
* Clearing multiple ‘developmental’ activities in ecologically sensitive areas, such as the Dibang valley, the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park and the Dibru Saikhowa National Park; and
* Incentivising private investment in the coal sector
An equally alarming development has been the omission of 30% of the CBSE syllabus for the current academic year for classes IX to XII. Several key topics relevant to environmental issues have been scrapped, including chapters on ecology, energy, agriculture and conservation. While experts and activists have vehemently opposed these interventions, such viewpoints are not common in Indian society at large. This is unfortunate: multi-generational education can enable inclusive and sustainable environmental governance in a post-pandemic India.
Role of an informed citizenry
The inability of citizens to engage in environmental governance, due to lack of access of information, can be destructive. For example, knowing that factories cause pollution is not enough. We must also understand that industrial pollution disproportionately affects low-income and minority communities – those often most ill-equipped to challenge it. Similarly, knowing that climate change is real is not enough. Individuals must recognise that it will have serious consequences for over half a billion people in this country. More importantly, people must develop the tools to fight it.
For some time earlier this year, many people around India and the world enjoyed bluer skies and cleaner air, improvements they attributed to the anti-pandemic lockdowns. But in doing so, the same people neglected larger structural environmental changes that the Indian state imposed, such as unregulated development. Similarly, the reduced curriculum is being treated as a blessing for students – but not many recognise that environmental education could be key to addressing pervasive changes that precipitated the pandemic in the first place.
In short, development at the cost of an ill-informed public is inarguably bad. To facilitate a paradigm shift, engagement is key – whereby informed communities actively participate in environmental decision-making and governance.
We need to adopt multiple approaches to engage various stakeholders across many demographics. This means educating younger students in schools and colleges as well as adults on current environmental issues, narratives and perspectives.
School and university education need to become interdisciplinary and promote systems-based thinking. This involves understanding the links between natural, economic and social systems, and developing strategies to address their challenges as a whole. The current syllabi in these institutions needs to be revamped to accommodate current narratives in the environmental field and foster critical thinking. Students should be exposed to field work, and presented with opportunities to develop skills to tackle local environmental crises.
The bigger challenge, of course, will be to (re)educating adults. Popular media outlets need to reconfigure existing discourses and thought processes on the subject – while people should be encouraged to take online courses, access online libraries, especially containing books in vernacular languages, and participate in citizen science. Environmental decision-making needs to be democratised to put greater onus on the people. The government should use public forums and consultations to channelise the political power of communities to inform policy.
Environmental exploitation during a pandemic has left many people rightly enraged – even as they have also had to grapple with personal crises. Escalating global environmental change won’t make this fight any easier. Axiomatically, to help prevent future pandemics, we need to reimagine the current Indian policy paradigm. And what our country lacks most today is an informed citizenry prepared for participatory action. A multi-generational approach to environmental education can fill this void.
Sanjana Chevalam is a social ecologist interested in environmental education, community engagement and participatory environmental governance. Manasi Anand is an interdisciplinary researcher interested in forest governance, ecological restoration, community-based conservation and nature-based climate solutions.