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Recent study shows receding glaciers in Sikkim, will stakeholders in environmental protection finally take global warming seriously?

In 2020, a study conducted by a team of scientists from the department of Science and Technology at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology located in Dehradun found that glaciers in Sikkim are melting faster than others in the Himalayan region. 

They stated that poor research and analysis prior to this had kept them in the dark about the behaviour of these glaciers but now that they’ve identified climate change as the root cause of the melting of glaciers, they believe that more awareness has to be generated regarding the hazards that could be caused by it. 

Sikkim’s geography and climate leaves it vulnerable to natural disasters which turn fatal when they occur. The melting of glaciers could prove dangerous to those who live in the higher altitudes and subsequently alter the lives of those who reside near large rivers. 

The study shows that between 1991-2015, climate change and global warming has shrunk Sikkim’s glaciers. There has been a gradual rise in temperature over the years, which is obvious by the fact that many houses in the state have now begun to install ceiling fans or opt for air coolers in the summer over the past few years. 

Environmental activism remains minor in the state, with the state government (previous and current) not paying heed to the indigenous peoples who are asking for mass deforestation and dam-building to be stopped. The Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) have been noted by various organizations both national and international but to a majority of Sikkimese, they are viewed as an organisation with an agenda that can be dismissed. 

The collision of capitalism against indigenous peoples land and activism is not necessarily a new thing. India has a long history of environmental activism started by women from rural areas who wanted to protect and conserve their natural habitat against exploitative actions by industries.

On a large scale, the Central government has given industries more power than the people, as was made clear by the draft environmental assessment notification 2020 which actually received more than 1.7 million objections from Indians who rejected the draft and wanted it reformed. 

A few months ago, the Subramanian Committee headed by former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramian which was appointed by the Union Ministry for Environment suggested making an “umbrella” act which would combine three existing acts, namely Air Act 1981, Water Act 1974, and the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 and form a new Environmental Laws Management Act (ELMA). 

This decision has been debated by various environmental lawyers and activists, some stating that this would regularize violation of the environment rather than prevent it. For instance, if a major company were to wreck a certain part of a protected land which was home to rare species of flora and fauna, they could technically damage the ecology but later pay for damages to restore it. This only leaves the earth more susceptible to severe alteration that could potentially damage the futures of many. 

Coming back to Sikkim, these laws remain relevant because the skewed behaviour of pharmaceutical companies who regularly avoid their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) dues and mushroom next to rivers might become one of the biggest causes for pollution in the state. Apart from this, the relentless pursuit of capital by way of approving hydroprojects is a threat to Sikkim’s natural resources. 

Now that even the glaciers have been identified as receding due to global warming, will the stakeholders in environmental protection and climate security take a much stronger stance against those who are approving and building destructive projects? Or will they watch as sacred lands and lakes are washed away from their hubris? 

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