The challenge of protecting and watching over India’s environment can be met only if we have substantial, good quality and reliable information. Unfortunately, this information is in very short supply.
Most of the data pertaining to India’s environment is collected by the state machinery. There are a few agencies which discharge their information-related responsibilities competently, such as the 140-year-old India Meteorological Department and the 46-year-old Indian Space Research Organisation, which properly record temperature and rainfall and satellite-based land cover data.
In recent years, the IMD has begun to share much of this data by freely using the internet. Similarly, the Bhuvan platform developed and maintained by ISRO has, over the years, made remarkable progress in integrating and making available high-quality geospatial information and tools.
But these two are mere exceptions. Other governmental agencies exhibit a number of shortcomings:
1. Failure to maintain records: Some agencies such as the Department of Mines in Goa have failed to maintain proper records of operational mines. It is owing to this lapse that much of the sand mining and stone quarrying in India is illegal and never brought on proper record. The same failing is exhibited by state Fisheries Departments and Pollution Control Boards, which maintain no records of major events like large-scale fish mortalities. Even scientific organisations like the Indian Council of Agricultural Research don’t keep records of key parameters such as changes in soil organic content of farmland, development of resistance to pesticide among insect pests, and spread of introduced genes from GM crops.
2. Patchy information: Rapidly plunging groundwater levels are an important issue, yet very little information is available on the issue. Remarkably, in Goa, information on groundwater levels is available for talukas not affected by mining but not for those talukas that are affected by it.
3. Suppression of accurate information: Oftentimes, Pollution Control Boards are guilty of suppressing information on pollution levels exceeding permissible limits. An example of this is the case of Vashishti River in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district.
4. Falsified information: While there are areas where the forestry establishment exaggerates records of tiger populations, there are also cases of false claims. For example, the assertion that there are no tigers in Goa. A large proportion of Environmental Impact Assessments – prepared not just by private agencies but also by some Council of Scientific and Industrial Research labs – carry falsified information on issues like the impact of mining on hill streams.
5. Failure to make information publicly available: Government agencies have failed to fulfil their obligation to comply with the suo motu disclosure requirement of the Right to Information Act. Also, sources of important information which should be made public, such as the pollution-related Zoning Atlas for Siting of Industries and the land use-related Regional Plan for Goa 2021, are being kept under wraps. This is in spite of the country's commitment to an open data policy.
6. Failure to involve public in generating information: Little attention is being paid to involve the public in producing useful environmental information. There are three major avenues of tapping this source: preparation of ward-wise Environmental Status Reports by Local Bodies under the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution, preparation of People’s Biodiversity Registers by Local Bodies under the Biological Diversity Act, and compilation of information generated through student projects under the educational system-wide compulsory Environmental Education courses.
7. Discouraging public involvement in generating information: Undue restrictions on public involvement in collecting useful environmental information are common, especially in the case of lands under the hold of the forestry establishment. The establishment controls nearly one-fourth of the country’s land surface.
To address this challenge, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had established circa 1983 an Environmental Information System, or ENVIS. This system has now grown to 68 centres, all of which primarily focus on newsletters, bibliographies, abstracts, annual reports, research papers, court orders, circulars, etc. instead of on useable environmental databases.
The inadequacy of ENVIS to meet the requirements of environmental governance was substantiated by the fact that the Environment Ministry felt the need to start a new environmental information facility called the Environmental Information Centre as a professionally-managed clearinghouse for environmental information in 2002. However, EIC stopped functioning altogether around 2010 and its domain name – www.eicinformation.org – was not renewed thereafter.
The exclusionary culture of bureaucratic management of environmental information cannot be maintained in the modern, open democratic society of India. Realising this, the government has promulgated the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy and set up a National Spatial Data Infrastructure. This ought to lead to a sustained effort to geocode environmental information and make it available as Geography Information System-ready datasets. To this end, we need a fresh initiative to create a new Environment Information Infrastructure that can act as an umbrella platform to collate and disseminate environmental information. We must also strive towards creating partnerships with public sector and private sector digital platforms. Two notable partnerships that can have considerable impact are Bhuvan (ISRO, 2015) and Google Public Data Explorer (Google, 2015).
To these proposals, we must add one more dimension: the information system should not only be publicly accessible but be participatory in nature, involving all interested citizens. It should be broad in scope and involve not only various Central and state government agencies, but also the local bodies and organisations such as industries and mines that are expected to document their pertinent activities.
India’s Biological Diversity Act, 2002, which mandates the establishment of Biodiversity Management Committees in all local bodies, provides an excellent platform for the involvement of barefoot ecologists along with students and teachers. However, the fact that such long-standing opportunities have so far not led to any concrete action indicates that we cannot rely on state support alone. Citizens must take the initiative and launch an information platform on India’s environmental concerns that is openly available. There is, after all, a successful experiment that has been built by public participation, without any reliance on governmental support or advertisement revenue from private businesses – it’s called Wikipedia.