Conservation is neither trivial, nor absolute

Unsurprisingly, recent alterations in environmental norms have enthused corporates. Activists,however, have been alarmed by some of the proposed changes. The Centre has amended about 60 existing environmental norms, all in a bid to promote development. Many state governments followed suit.

In Maharashtra, for instance, measures like relaxation of coastal regulatory zone norms to facilitate coastal roads, the BMC's call to uproot 1,000 trees to improve urban infrastructure, and the state government's approval to scrap River Regulatory Zone (RRZ) regulations-a move that will lead several polluting industries onto the flood plains-have raised concerns.

While many of these regulatory changes are being just ified in the name of 'sustainable development', we must bear in mind that environmental regulations can never be viewed in static terms. They may respond to changing circumstances and scientific understanding but these regulations must also state clearly articulated objectives and principles.

And in this lies the biggest challenge - how do we strike a balance between retaining our ecosystem without stunting development and growth?

Sustainable development is more than just a buzzword. In the true sense of the word it implies that we, as a society must ensure that economic growth respects the limits of our biosphere, and it enables justice across our present and future generations.

While improving living standards is imperative, it must not worsen poverty or ill-health. It is also crucial to maintain our vital life support systems, namely air, water, soil, biodiversity and oceans, and ensure that the natural resource base of the economy remains productive.

Translating this conceptinto guidance for actual policy requires the adoption of specific objectives and principles.

The National Environment Policy (NEP) - initiated by the NDA-I government in 2003, adopted by the UPA-I government in 2006, and finally tabled in the Parliament without opposition -sets forth seven objectives and 14 principles like 'incorporating environmental concerns in economic and social decision- making' and how 'environmental standards must reflect the economic and social development situation of the society'.

The NEP also outlines strategies to realise these objectives in a number of areas, including pollution abatement, coastal resources, regulatory clearances, forests and wildlife, and river systems.

The CRZ regulations, which should ideally be based on scientific understanding and consultation with local communities, seek to protect coastal ecosystems and coastal waters. But they must also strive to support livelihoods and protect vulnerable coastal areas from extreme events like cyclones and rise in sea levels. Application of regulations like alignments of coastal roads must also remain in line with the specified goals.

When it comes to the health of our rivers, it becomes imperative to locate and assess the environmental impact of polluting activities in the vicinity of the rivers. For this purpose, the Environment Impact Assessment Notification passed in 2006 mandates a scientific study ensuring that river and estuarine flora and fauna-which comprise the resource base for livelihoods-and water quality impacting the health of local communities dependent on river resources, are not impaired, even in the case of floods.

As for trees, it is needless to stress upon their importance in urban centres such as Mumbai. Green cover is crucial for the over-all environmental quality of our city abating pollution, removing suspended dust, mitigating noise, providing a habitat for urban wildlife, and providing recreation.

This is not to say that urban infrastructure is not essential In fact, inadequate infrastructure can impose huge welfare costs on the residents and adversely impact their livelihoods. Therefore, it is important to avoid the extremes of tree fetishism, and denuding all green cover in urban areas.

Also unlike natural landscapes, even old cities need meticulous spatial planning to enable their evolution, and such plans need to be updated periodically as the city evolves in economic, social, and demographic terms. Sufficient multifunctional green areas must be provided for in these plans and they should be conserved, even as particular trees in particular locations may need to be moved.

Environmental conservation is part of human well-being. It is neither absolute, nor trivial.