This paper builds insights into the relationship between human activities and impact on ecological and sociological human systems, both during the rejuvenation of the biosphere during the pandemic and possible future degrading pathways as economic activities rally, and to further intensify the strengthening of the environmental laws both globally and domestically.
The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was declared a pandemic in March 2020. Its discernible consequences on public health make it a once-in-a-century global disaster.
This essay further delves into the positive impacts of enhanced air/water quality and negative impacts as depletion in the labour force caused by the pandemic and the resultant unemployment that has led to socio-economic imbalances, thereby affecting the basic functioning of society.
Many experts link pandemic prevention with environmental policy. Also, a pandemic is much more than a mere health crisis. It is also an unprecedented socio-economic-environmental crisis stressing each country it touches. It is predicted that there will be drastic behavioural changes in society in the aftermath of COVID-19.
This essay concludes with deciphering changes and recommends the outline modalities that would merit consideration in formulating more robust environmental policies through the lens of environmental laws and cases.
“The earth, the air, the land and the water are not an inheritance from our forefathers but on loan from our children. So we have to hand over to them at least as it was handed over to us.” –Mahatma Gandhi
Our surroundings, which consists of air, water, and land and can sustain animals and plants’ lives, are known as the environment. It can also be seen as a blanket that nurtures the lives of billions of species and keeps them unharmed. Moreover, a healthy and conducive environment is essential for the sustenance of flora & fauna.
Over the years, the ill-usage and depletion of natural resources in the name of development has suffocated the environment. The quality of natural water and air has reached threatening levels.
The world at large has been infected today by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread by a virus named “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)“. The disease was declared a pandemic in March 2020, and since its emergence in China, it has spread over to more than 200 countries globally and has caused over 655,112 deaths worldwide till July 30 2020.
Most countries responded by social distancing measures by imposing strict lockdowns and severely diminishing economic and other activities. This gave sufficient time to the stakeholders, especially the citizens, to consider and contemplate the environmental degradation done over the years.
The pandemic has made it quite obvious for us to notice the damage we did to our ecosystem and instil a sense of need to revamp our attitude towards the environment.
Though there is a temporary improvement in the Air Quality Index and Water Quality Index at many places, there is an enormous increase in the percentage of the medical and plastic waste generated and shoreline pollution due to the disposal of sanitary consumables during the same period.
Arguably, the eﬀects of COVID-19 are determined mainly by anthropogenic (originating in human activities) factors, which are becoming evident as human activity has diminished and is diminishing across the planet. The impacts of the same on cities and public health will be continued in the coming years through behavioural changes.
One must admit that the need of the hour is conscientious interaction with our environment and ecology to avoid further environmental regression.
COVID’s Positive Impacts on the Environment
The global disruptions caused by coronavirus disease have numerous impacts on the environment. The considerable decline in human activities such as travel and shutting down of industries have resulted in many regions experiencing a significant drop in air pollution along with a visible sky.
It has pushed governments across the globe for climate-friendly spending of funds and resources. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air reported that methods adopted to contain the spread of coronavirus have resulted in a 25% reduction of carbon emission in China.
Ever since the travel ban was imposed in many parts of the world, there has been a sharp decline in toxic gases such as SOx and NOx. NO2 is a harmful gas and, when it comes in contact with moisture, forms dangerous NO3.
Since the industrialisation process began in India, greenhouse gases, particulate matter (especially PM2.5), and other toxic gases have significantly reduced.
Apart from these, we could witness wildlife reclaiming their spaces where they would not dare go due to fear of human interference. From India and Thailand to Florida, rare turtles were spotted nesting and hatching at the sea beaches. These beaches had been deserted by visitors and tourists due to imposed travel restrictions.
Countries like Germany may also be able to attain their climate goals as the economic production of CO2 has almost halted.
However, all of this is at the cost of a subject worth reconsideration.
COVID’s Negative Impacts on the Environment
The depletion in the labour force caused by the pandemic and the resultant unemployment has led to socio-economic imbalances, thereby affecting the basic functioning of society, including but not limited to waste management, sanitation and the plight of the agriculturists.
The Supreme Court of India took suo moto cognisance of the plight of migrant workers upon constant and severe criticism by several activists when the legislative pillar failed indecisively in addressing the situation, and the migrants had to walk back home covering more than 1000 kilometres on foot during the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown has led to a considerable rise in plastic wastes. According to the Thailand Environment Institute, the average plastic waste increased from 2,120 tons a day in 2019 to approximately 3,440 tons a day between January and April 2020 in Thailand.
Furthermore, the medical waste in the Hubei Province of China has created a 600% increase in medical waste (from 40 to 240 tons per day) in response to the pandemic.
All these data represented above show the paradigm shift in the way pollution is created.
Moreover, industries and factories have been shut. Agriculturists have lost their livelihood and are forced to dump their extra produce much below the production rate.
Domestic violence cases are at an all-time rise, and people’s mental health has taken a toll.
Let alone the greenhouse gases; it is predicted that in the aftermath of COVID-19, there would be drastic behavioural changes in society.
There is a grossly inadequate level of infrastructural support for adhering to desired behaviours, myths and cultural practices. The leadership at many levels remains a barrier rather than the thrust for change. Some essential cultural practices like the nuptial ceremonies, cremation or burial rituals of washing bodies embedded within local cultures for centuries have been labelled as risk behaviours. They are either stopped or allowed with minimal gathering as prevention and containment measures are put to priority.
Hence, the need to interpret these changes and formulate a policy towards incorporating these changes and adopting green recovery methods is much needed when the restrictions are being eased throughout the world.
Environmental Policy: Analysis and Recommendation
Some significant challenges that this pandemic has put across society are:
- Biodegradable waste disposal.
- Decongestion of metro cities as a step towards preparedness for future pandemics.
- Environmental jurisprudence with a focus on green economy rehabilitation.
- Changes in lifestyle incorporating compassion.
- Holistic development that is health and climate centric instead of economy centric.
- Initiation of advanced climate action programs.
We have various laws and compliance machinery designed to protect the environment with deterrent principles incorporated as well as actions and penalties predefined when some harm is inflicted on the environment.
Stockholm Declaration (1972)
The pith of the principles eulogised in the Stockholm Declaration recognises the inalienable nature of the man’s right to a conducive environment for his growth and the growth of his future generations. To enforce the principles of the Stockholm Declaration of which India was a signatory, The Environment Protection Act, 1986 was enacted and through the Act’s conduit, the sub-rules and notifications have been published. The very man for whose benefit the array of legislations exist has a right to know what would affect the environment in and around him.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992)
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted and signed in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. It came to be known as the Rio Declaration and subsequently reaffirms the principles laid down in 1972 in Stockholm. It emphasised the vitality of women and youth participation in environmental management and laid that their full participation and cooperation are essential to sustainable development in the principles laid down.
In 2015, another agreement under UNFCCC was adopted to deal with the greenhouse-gas-emission mitigation, adaptation and finance in Paris, France. One hundred eighty-nine countries have signed the Paris Agreement as of February 2020. The most crucial objective was to keep the global average temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
National Green Tribunal Act (2010)
In India, National Green Tribunal (NGT) was set up per the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 to handle the expeditious disposal of the cases related to environmental issues. India became the third country globally, only after Australia and New Zealand, to set up a specialised environmental tribunal.
The NGT deals with civil cases under different laws concerned with the environment, including The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, The Forest (Conservation) Act, The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
Following its inception, 33619 cases have been disposed of by the NGT up to September 2021 in various environmental matters across the nation.
Article 51A(g) of the Indian Constitution
The duty to protect and improve the natural environment and have compassion for living creatures has been enshrined in the Constitution of India under Article 51A(g).
The High Court of Rajasthan in LK Koolwal vs State of Rajasthan examined the scope and extent of Article 51A(g). Under the Rajasthan Municipalities Act, 1959, the Municipal Authority has primary duty “to clean public streets, sewers and all spaces and places, not being private property, which are open to the enjoyment of public, removing of noxious (poisonous) vegetation and all public nuisances and to remove filth, rubbish, night soil, odour or any other noxious or offensive matter.”
The High Court, while pronouncing the judgment, dictated the true scope of Article 51A in the following term:
“We can call Article 51A ordinarily as the duty of the citizens. But in fact, it is the right of the citizens as it creates the right in favour of citizens to move to the court to see that the State performs its duties sincerely and the mandatory and primary duties are performed in accordance with the rule of the land.”
Informed and responsible citizenry is the stepping stone in the rejuvenation of the environment. Sustainable development is the core idea in modern times to protect and preserve the environment and keep up the pace of development goals.
Though the loss of lives due to any pandemic causes substantial irrevocable damage to society, we need to learn from our mistakes and adopt a preventive principle to check against future hazards.
Apart from disrupting lives and livelihood, COVID-19 has severely bent the curve of the global economy towards a flat note.
Temporary benefits have been achieved because of restricting impositions during the pandemic, but it is slowly fading away, and the pollution levels are reverting to their previous levels.
Froth can be again seen in the Yamuna river in Delhi.
Many corporations have decided to grant their employees “work from home” forever, but the same cannot be for everyone.
Inequity leads to inequality, and low-income areas have invariably higher air pollution that would, in turn, imply higher transmission rates of epidemic and pandemic diseases.
As per the latest report on “COVID-19 in an urban world” by the United Nations, coronavirus starts from big cities and falls to lower cities.
It has also been found that environmental pollution leads to a decline in cognitive ability. Therefore, it can be established that health and pollution are co-related.
The Government of India has brought out the Environment Impact Assessment Draft Notification, 2020 at this time with the main focus on ease of doing business rather than environment conservation which will escalate the most pressing challenges of humanity at this dearth hour.
Environment activists and civil societies have suggested revaluation of the draft. They have pointed out several fallacies in their letter to the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change, suggesting it as weakening, non-transparent and destructive. The period for public hearing and consultation has been truncated. It goes against the 10th principle laid down in the Rio Declaration, to which India is a signatory.
Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration:
“Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.”
The draft has several contentions such as ex-post-facto clearances, the inclusion of strategic considerations and the Environment Impact Assessment prepared by the project proponent themselves.
Policies like such undo the years of change and progress that have been achieved through unforgettable struggles. Instead, laws should be progressive and visionary; this draft has departed farther towards degradation from its 2006 predecessor.
Time and again, the need for a better policy has been emphasised to keep pollution in check. The need has arisen at its zenith when the unlock process unfolds in different parts of the world. We need rules to manoeuvre this process.
Along with stringent action under the laws in all such cases of violations, a simultaneous effort is required to be made at two different levels:
By the legislature to strengthen environmental laws and public consultation in implementing the same.
By environmental literacy programs by various organisations to educate the public on environment and wildlife compassion.
“Development issues cannot be contained within national boundaries.” –Medha Patkar, Indian Social Activist and Social Reformer
We have to admit that an autonomous body like the Environmental Protection Authority should be set up to keep the pollution in check, which works in furtherance to our climate goals. The body should consist of independent and loyal experts to environmental jurisprudence and not be biased towards any other organisations or political parties.
A strict correctional mechanism should be embossed in terms of violations of environmental laws.
The dichotomy of the yawning gap between the aspirations of the people and the clandestine performance of different organs of the government should be changed conscientiously for the betterment of society and the environment at large.
The world requires a significant paradigm shift that should favour sustainable development and a dignified environment to live in.
Several declarations have been signed and ratified in favour of mass public participation, especially the women and youths, but the same has been far from being realised.
The policy of “Local knows the best” has been cornered for a long time. The time has come when “Janta Sunwai” should be cemented deep in matters concerning policy formulation on the environment front.
Environment justice and environment jurisprudence is the core value of our Constitution, and it needs to be strengthened.
Prevent first, deter best and punish later should be incorporated to march towards green economic recovery while moving forward to stabilise the withering economy.
A responsible, informed, and compassionate citizenry is the stepping stone to protecting our environment.
There has been enough talk of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which means the earth is one family, and the time has come for it to be aggressively implemented.