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India: PM pledges $50 million for biodiversity protection, but are the 'rich' countries listening?

India's track record on environmental protection is dismal, but its $50 million pledge should shame the US and Europe into action.
India biodiversity 2012 10 17Enlarge
A butterfly sits in the window sill near a garden in New Delhi on October 25, 2011. India hosts one of the world's largest biodiversity hot spots. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

The Indian prime minister pledged $50 million to protect the world's plant and animal life at the UN convention on biodiversity Tuesday, in a move intended to push the world's more developed countries to put up or shut up.

India's track record on the environment is dismal, as activists told the Hindustan Times. But the PM's move, like an earlier shift away from stonewalling on emissions limits, should shame the world's rich countries into shelling out as well.

"Listening to his assertions regarding India's commitment to conservation and livelihoods, one would think the country is in the right hands. Nothing can be farther from the truth," the paper quoted Ashish Kothari, founder of NGO Kalpvariksh, as saying.

As GlobalPost noted in February, Indian environmentalists have slammed the country's environmental protection regime as farcical, even as the PM and others among the business lobby have repeatedly blamed the supposedly slow pace of green clearances for holding back industrial projects.

According to the Center for Science and Environment, a greater number of projects were approved in the past five years than the number projected by the national Planning Commission for the upcoming 11th and 12th Five Year Plans.

Between 2007 and 2011, for instance, 361 non-coal mining projects were cleared during the supposed drought, and the country's iron and steel capacity doubled.

Respect for biodiversity is also a joke, considering the way environmental impact assessments have been conducted for huge projects, such as a series of more than 150 dams slated for construction in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh (See Dam Nation: the threat to the environment)

Between 2005 and 2009, the Arunachal Pradesh state government took in around $200 million in fees and so-called upfront payments for allotting dam projects to developers, according to the state Department of Hydro Power Development. In two of those years, receipts for upfront payments amounted to 10 percent of the state's entire budget for expenditures on public programs.

Meanwhile, wildlife experts and activists found that the impact assessments conducted after those payments were received were shoddy at best.

For example, the assessment for the 1,000 MW Siyom project listed only five bird species in an area with more than 300, and one of those five does not exist, Vagholikar writes. The assessment for the 600 MW Kameng project incorrectly identified animals like the red panda, pangolin and porcupine as herbivores.

And the assessment for the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri project listed only 55 species of fish in a river that has at least 156. It also reported an area called “the Arctic” in the Eastern Himalayas — perhaps an example of cutting and pasting from another study, which is reportedly a common feature of many assessment reports.

Perhaps most dramatically, no agency has so far undertaken a study of the cumulative impact of dams on all these tributaries of the Brahmaputra on communities downstream in Assam and West Bengal — though India's Central Electricity Authority has reportedly agreed to conduct one, now that several of the projects are well underway.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/india/india-biodiversity-pledge