By Pawan Chamling, Former Chief Minister of Sikkim
GANGTOK: The right to the Environment is one of the most important rights in the world. The Environment is also the biggest global issue. Our lives and the survival of our planet depend upon the environment and so we must do everything in order to protect it. The relationship between the environment and living beings is akin to that between the heart and its heartbeat.
The environment is all-giving and has provided for our natural requirements since the beginning of humanity. Beyond providing sustenance, the environment shapes our culture and way of life. However, today it is evident that the environment is no longer able to cater to our greed, our egos and our consumption driven, anti-environment and unnatural lifestyles.
There has been gross interference upon our environment due to the immense demands we have put upon it. This interference has especially become intensified with the rising population which puts pressure on our natural resources. Certain developments in science and technology have led to innovations that have further exacerbated such pressures.
For instance, in the name of the Green Revolution, we poisoned our lands with chemicals. After World War 2, several technological innovations to increase production were implemented in the field of agriculture. The Green Revolution using agrochemicals and new High Yield Varieties of crops certainly increased production, but it also had a detrimental impact on the environment. Our answer to this was adopting organic agriculture. Today, as an answer to the Green Revolution, Sikkim has made a global mark by demonstrating that high yield 100% organic is possible.
Human interference has made our environment extremely unbalanced and we can see this with the rising temperatures, vicious cyclones, droughts and food shortages. All our issues today are man-made from conflict, poverty and disease to global warming. Due to human activity, 99% of all species that ever lived on our planet have become extinct and this process is continuing.
Our rivers are drying up whereas the sea level is rising, the seas and oceans at the same time becoming choked with plastic. The acidification of our oceans is a great challenge, as is the melting away of our mountains and glaciers. Access to drinking water will be a pressing issue in the future. We are destroying our forests to satisfy the global demand for goods. It is believed that just four commodities – beef, soy, palm oil and wood – are responsible for deforestation in the tropics where most deforestation activities are concentrated today.
Deforestation is dangerous as 15-20% of all greenhouse gas emissions annually occur due to the loss of our forests. In this context, the ban on the felling of trees in Sikkim makes us an anomaly and our increase in forest cover an example in the world.
According to NASA, the earth is warming at a pace “unprecedented in 1,000 years”. One of its key causes is the rising carbon emissions. India is number three in the world in carbon footprint contributing 7% of global carbon emissions at 2.65 metric gigatons annually. China is the largest contributor at 28%. Governments across the world must review their country’s consumption patterns and set down laws to reduce carbon footprint. One way is to adopt a policy of only establishing non-polluting industries or placing stringent carbon taxes on polluting industries.
One of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions is driving. A typical passenger vehicle produces about 4.6 metric tons of CO2 each year. We must reduce our dependence on gas and cars and rethink the automobile industry. It is also worrisome that there is no real concerted global effort to think seriously about pollution and how we can reduce or eliminate it.
The tourism industry, which has a massive carbon footprint, must be developed in harmony with the environment. We must aim for a chemical and non-biodegradable material free earth. At the same time, we must conserve and sustainably use our natural resources of air, water, earth, energy and raw materials.
Today, climate change is threatening to wipe out entire countries. The Republic of Kiribati is one such example which faces the danger of complete displacement. Taking the example of the Mayan Civilization, experts have suggested environmental degradation, drought and overpopulation as some of the causes for extinction. In the year 2020 alone, more people were displaced due to climate change than war. It will not be long before we see the same trend in Sikkim. In the future, Sikkim will witness climate change migration due to shortage of water, especially in South, parts of West and East District. So the time to act is now.
In 2016, Stephen Hawking stated that “We are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it”. If we continue on at the same rate, we will require more than one earth to fulfil our demands. Taking heed of such warnings and observing changes we see around us, we must act now. We have a devastating pandemic at hand. Experts believe that pandemics like Covid-19 will be more frequent and be driven by climate change. Our world has already seen the Spanish Flu (1918-1920), the Influenza pandemic or Asian Flu (1957-58), the Hong Kong flu (1968-69) and many more. We have lost about 37 lakh deaths due to the coronavirus pandemic. What we are witnessing is a reaction from the environment to all the violence we have caused.
Today, we are at a precipice as humanity. The warnings from environmental experts have not been considered with due seriousness. This is evident in the fact that we are far from achieving the cap in temperature change at 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels in this century, as set by the Paris Agreement in 2016. We have a long way to go and the challenges in front of us are urgent. In history we have seen several revolutions. Today we are witnessing a digital revolution where AI and automation is taking over industries and changing the way we work. From the French Revolution to the Industrial Revolution, we have witnessed great upheavals which have changed the world in its wake. Today, we have to start a new revolution: A movement we can name “Ecological Revolution”. For this, we have to be courageous enough to make drastic changes in the way we consume, live, develop policies, run governments and organizations and treat the environment. We have to immerse ourselves in a Pavitra Kranti to totally transform the way we live and what our values are. In Sikkim, keeping this in mind, we developed polices where protection of the environment was central:
1. Soon after forming the government, we declared 1995 as the Green Revolution Year. We undertook massive awareness programs to build a collective understanding of the environment and its protection.
2. We framed and adopted a policy of only implementing non-polluting industries. Till today, this policy stands. As part of this, we scrapped a factory at Phero Ally.
3. We also scrapped the Rathangchu Hydel project.
4. We banned the use of plastic and non-biodegradable materials in Sikkim on 14th August 1998 for which our state was applauded across the country. This was a crucial decision since supporting the plastic industry adds to carbon emissions. During the production of 1 kg of plastic, 6kgs of CO2 is created.
5. On June 5, 1999, we introduced the program of Smriti Vans, establishing such Smriti Vans in 166 Gram Panchayat Units.
6. 2001-2010 was declared as the Environment Revolution Decade. During this time, the government implemented various programs and activities to protect the environment as well as to build awareness.
7. We reclaimed 17240 hectares of G Firing Range in North Sikkim from the army which was given by the previous government.
8. We banned climbing the peak of Mount Kanchenjunga along with 8 mountain peaks. The defilement of sacred lakes and rocks in any manner was outlawed.
9. Sikkim was the first state in India to develop comprehensive laws for forest conservation and wildlife.
10. We banned grazing in forest land, killing of wildlife as well as deforestation.
11. In 2002, we began the formation of Eco Clubs in schools across Sikkim.
12. Taking into consideration Sikkim rich ecosystem and our priority of promoting clean tourism, the policy of Ecotourism was implemented on October 13, 2004.
13. We began the Paryawaran Mahotsav in 2005.
14. We began the Green Mission on February 27, 2006.
15. In 2007, we constituted the State Board of Wildlife which was followed by the constitution of the Glacier and Climate Change Commission.
16. We began the innovative program of Ten Minutes to Earth in 2009 and since then, June 25 each year has been celebrated as Ten Minutes to Earth day.
17. In 2009 the State Pollution Control Board was constituted.
18. Since we banned the cutting of trees for firewood, free LPG connections were distributed in rural Sikkim.
19. Eco-Development Committee, State Wildlife Advisory Board and the State Medicinal Plant Board among several others were constituted as organizations that would support and help implement our environment-focused policies.
20. Environment Education, as well as Organic farming, was introduced in schools.
21. In 2014, a ban was placed on the sale and bursting of firecrackers.
22. In 2015 diclofenac sodium and burning of agricultural wastes were banned.
23. In 2016 all the old trees of Sikkim were recognized as State Heritage Trees.
24. We notified the entire wildlife area in Sikkim and later as a result of this, we were also successful in having the Kanchenjunga National Park be recognised by UNESCO as a heritage site under mixed criteria for natural and cultural significance in July 2016.
25. Due to our pro-environment policies, our forest cover increased by 4% from 43.95% in 1993 to 47.80% in 2016, which itself is an achievement in a world where everywhere else forests are being depleted.
26. Our green initiatives led to Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi bestowing upon me the Greenest Chief Minister Award in 1998.
27. Sikkim won the laurel of the Cleanest State of the country in 2008, along with the Nirmal Rajya Puraskar in 2008.
28. Lonely Planet recognised Sikkim as one of the top ten places to be visited in the world in 2014. In 2016, the New York Times placed Sikkim at number 17 under the places to be visited in the world.
29. At the personal invitation of the then Governor of California, Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger, I had the privilege of attending the Global Summit on Climate Change held between 18th 19th Nov 2008. I was one of the signatories from India to sign the Climate Change Agreement at the Summit.
30. Between 2003 to 31st December 2015, we took up the immensely challenging policy decision to turn Sikkim into the first organic state, not only in India but the world. There were no examples to replicate and no trained manpower to implement the mission. We had to start from scratch. On 18th January 2016, Shri Narendra Modi, Hon’ble Prime Minister of India, declared Sikkim as a fully organic state.
I continuously raised the issue of organic farming in national development council meetings, Planning Commission meetings and North-eastern states’ council meetings. Unfortunately, there was little to no response on the issue of organic farming and its importance for India. Still, I am immensely happy today since because of the example we set in Sikkim, organic agriculture has been incorporated into the national program. Today, Organic Agriculture is the talk of the country.
I believe organic agriculture holds the key to protect our planet and our future. Scientists state that 50% contribution of CO2 emissions comes from modern agricultural practices that are dependent on agrochemicals. If we all turn towards organic agriculture, we will automatically be cutting out 50% of CO2 emissions. Pollution will halve and we will have healthier ecosystems.
Even though organic agriculture of Sikkim did not receive much appreciation in our own state and country, we did receive widespread global recognition by organizations such as the United Nations and the World Future Council. In Sikkim however, far from appreciation, the opposition parties protested against our policy decision at the time of announcement and even after becoming fully organic. However, from the “Sustainable Development Leadership Award” by TERI in 2016 awarded by Shri Pranab Mukherjee, then President of India, “One World Award Grand Prix” by Rapunzel in 2017 (Legau, Germany), “Ambassador of an Organic Himalaya and an Organic World” 2017 by Dr. Vandana Shiva (New Delhi), “Future Policy Gold Award” by the United Nations, World Future Council in 2018 (Rome, Italy), our achievement in becoming the first fully organic state in the world has been appreciated by several global organizations.
As Chief Minister, I took many policy decisions which may have been a challenge politically but I took them anyway because of their benefit to the people of Sikkim. Most politicians are unable to take such risks in the fear of political backlash. For political programs, environmental protection is not usually of utmost priority. This has to change. What we need are political leaders and parties across the world who can take the bold decision of “environment first”. All our development models have to make environmental health a yardstick of progress rather than the sole measure of economic productivity. Alongside announcing GDP, all countries should have a framework for measuring Environment Health. This should be used not in a punitive way but instead, it should be used to recognize countries that are giving global leadership to reduce carbon footprint, developing innovative and environment-led development models and producing knowledge that will help in this global effort of environment protection. This requires a lot of risk-taking and innovative thinking. Global partnerships between governments and the global community must be built to battle the crisis of environmental degradation which puts our very existence at risk.
An Ecological Revolution is what we need. So far, humanity has been plundering the earth and our resources to feed our endless wants and desires, much beyond our actual needs. It is time that we reverse the damage and the violence that we have caused to the environment. It is time we take up the Pavitra Kranti of an Ecological Revolution in which we undergo a self-transformation as individuals, as organizations, as a global production chain, becoming champions of environment protection. This Pavtira Kranti has to start from you and me. The Environment issue is a global issue and it needs solving at the global level, but most importantly at the local and individual level. Every single one of us has to take part in this global effort. Without the participation of each and every individual, we will not get very far. Transforming our way of thinking about progress, we must become agents that will lead this new Ecological Revolution. If we redefine what progress means, our governments and organizations will have to adapt to this new paradigm of progress. In this new Ecological Revolution, the 8 billion of us in the world have to act as a social fence, protecting the environment for our future. Let us take that pledge today.
Happy World Environment Day!
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