civils360 Editorials for mains
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SEPTEMBER 23, 2017

From ocean to ozone, the limits of our planet

  • The population of vertebrate species on Earth in the wild saw a dramatic fall of about 30% between 1970 and 2006, with the worst effects being in the tropics and in freshwater ecosystems. Destruction of species’ habitats by pollutants and land-use change are obliterating flora and fauna at unprecedented rates. In fact, the ecological footprint of humanity — the natural habitats, such as water and land, transformed or destroyed as a result of human activity — far exceeds the biological capacity of the earth.
  • In an attempt to understand the natural world, its relationships with human societies and limits, in 2009, Johan Rockström and others from the Stockholm Environment Institute described elements of the biophysical world that link us together. Often regarded as a “safe operating space for humanity”, these planetary boundaries include loss of biodiversity, land-use change, changes to nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosols loading, ozone depletion, chemical production, freshwater use and, of course, climate change.
  • In the course of 12,000 or so years after the last ice age, the Holocene epoch has offered a stable climate, a period of grace for humanity to grow and to flourish, with settlements, agriculture and, more recently, economic and population expansion. This epoch has since given way to the Anthropocene, the exact beginnings of which are debated, but which has led to over-reliance on fossil fuels, industrial agriculture, pollution in water, soils and air, loss of species and so on, which are devastating for many life forms and connected ecosystems throughout the planet.

Biophysical considerations

  • Many of these conditions respond in a non-linear manner to changes. This means, for instance, that ecosystems that are stressed by their exposure to pollutants may not recover once the pollutants are removed. Or, some systems may collapse precipitously under conditions referred to as thresholds.
  • When ecological thresholds or tipping points are crossed, significant large-scale changes may occur, such as breakdown of glaciers in Greenland and the Antarctica, the dieback of rainforests in the Amazon, or failure of the Indian monsoons. Since these boundaries interact with one another and cause changes across scales, crossing a threshold in one domain can speed up or undermine processes in another subsystem. For instance, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increase ocean acidification, land-use change often increases GHG emissions, and increasing nitrogen and phosphorus deplete species biodiversity and freshwater resources and increase warming from climate change.

Boundaries and limits

  • According to Mr. Rockström and others, we are already at critical levels of concern for climate change, fresh water, species biodiversity and changes to nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, which are reaching tipping points. For example, GHG emissions have led to average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations being about 410 ppm. This is well above the 350 ppm level considered a ‘safe’ limit, and the earth is already about a degree Celsius warmer than average pre-industrial temperatures.
  • Since publication of these studies by Mr. Rockstrom and others, there has been plenty of discussion, even strong disagreement, regarding the boundaries. Some scientists, such as Kate Raworth, have expanded them to reflect and include several social dimensions such as equity and gender justice that were subsequently placed in the centre of a schematic representation of the boundaries as a circle with a hole or as a doughnut.
  • One may regard planetary boundaries as support systems for life on Earth or view them as expressing “carrying capacity” and defining “limits to growth”. The latter is a thesis that was originally published nearly half a century ago by the Club of Rome as a book in 1972. It described the situation we would find ourselves in with exponential population and economic growth. While the “limits to growth” argument was challenged for good analytical reasons, it still provided a lens through which to view the changing world of the 21st century. It also offered the idea of thinking about a system as a whole — systems thinking — not just as separate parts and feedback mechanisms as valuable processes in considering long-term change.

On sustainability

  • The idea of sustainability became formally a part of international agreements and discourse when it was recognised at the Earth Summit of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.
  • This systems view and the recognition of interlinkages among the social, environmental, and economic pillars of sustainability, and between biophysical planetary boundaries and social conditions, are essential to have a chance of keeping the world safe for future generations. It is telling that scholars who work on planetary boundaries regard climate change as one of the easiest to manage and contain.
  • In thinking about these planetary limits then, researchers and policymakers should reflect on multiple systems and the linkages among them, and whether step-by-step or transformative changes must be considered to keep the planet safe for the future.

Questions of numbers

  • The key political question that has arisen in Tamil Nadu is whether Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami commands a majority in the State Assembly. The Governor is obviously averse to ordering a floor test. The Chief Minister is not keen on demonstrating his strength on the floor of the House. The Speaker is concentrating on ensuring that dissidents are kept out of any possible confidence vote, if and when one takes place. The Leader of the Opposition has not moved a motion of no confidence, but, on the contrary, believes that the Governor should order a floor test.

Over to the courts

  • The High Court has become a battleground for the three-way political sparring going on between the rebel group, the ruling party, and the main opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), when it ought to be the legislative chamber. The first decisive move came from the 19 MLAs owing allegiance to T.T.V. Dhinakaran, nephew of jailed and deposed former AIADMK general secretary V.K. Sasikala. On August 22, the dissident legislators approached the Governor with a memorandum expressing lack of confidence in the Chief Minister, and, on September 18, Speaker P. Dhanapal ruled that this amounted to ‘voluntarily giving up their membership of the party’ and disqualified 18 of them. One dissociated himself from the dissenters and returned to the loyalist fold. The DMK leader, M.K. Stalin, who also heads the Opposition in the Assembly, also approached the Governor with a demand that he order a floor test as the ruling party has lost its majority. With the Governor not acting on it for weeks, he moved the Madras High Court for a direction to the Governor to direct the Chief Minister to seek a confidence vote.
  • Then came the disqualification, as a result of which the ousted legislators also approached the court. Thus, the two issues — the question whether the Governor ought to intervene and whether the Speaker was helping the ruling party by disqualifying rebels and thereby converting its minority into a majority — are both before the court.

The Governor’s role

  • The principal reason for the political impasse is Governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao’s silence. Is he justified in not acting on the request for a floor test? Going by the observations made by the Supreme Court last year, his inaction is possibly justified. While dealing with the Arunachal Pradesh crisis last year, a Constitution Bench said: “The activities within a political party, confirming turbulence, or unrest within its ranks, are beyond the concern of the Governor… Who should or should not be a leader of a political party, is a political question, to be dealt with and resolved privately by the political party itself. The Governor cannot, make such issues, a matter of his concern.” It said a breakaway group could be legitimate and recognisable only if it constituted two-thirds of a party, as stipulated in the Tenth Schedule, and the Governor could embark on a constitutional course of action only on the claims of such a group. However, does it necessarily mean that Governors should not act until a rebellion touches the two-thirds mark within the legislature party? No, for the Bench adds that such a recourse is available during a constitutional crisis “as when the government is seen to have lost the confidence of the House”. Therefore, the correct reading of the judgment is that the court bars Governors from political embroilment and has not restrained them from their constitutional duty to allay doubts that a particular regime has lost its majority.
  • As the Governor has not acted on a reasonable apprehension that the Palaniswami government has been reduced to a minority, should the DMK’s petition for a direction to the Governor to order a floor test be allowed by the Madras High Court? Given that it is a matter that falls under the Governor’s discretion, is such a petition maintainable? When the matter came up for admission, the court’s attention was drawn to the fear expressed by the counsel that the Speaker was planning to disqualify the dissenters in an effort to bring about a majority in a truncated House. As a result, it passed an order staying a possible floor test that may have taken place after the feared disqualification! This was said to be in the interests of justice, as otherwise the government would have sailed through the vote. In a couple of days, the disqualification did take place, and once again, on petitions challenging the Speaker’s order, the court did not grant a stay. Instead, it extended the stay on the floor test on a request from the Speaker’s advocate, and with the consent of all other parties.
  • It is not clear what provision in the Constitution empowers the court to stall a floor test, but there are precedents. The Supreme Court had ordered a ‘composite floor test’ in 1998 and 2005 in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, but these directions attracted considerable criticism. Further, the only persons aggrieved by the possible adoption of a confidence vote in their absence will be the disqualified MLAs. Therefore, only a stay of their disqualification or an interim direction allowing them to vote during a floor test could have met the interests of justice. However, instead of adopting this constitutionally permissible course — disqualification under the anti-defection law is justiciable, whereas setting the legislative agenda is outside judicial purview — the court chose to stay the trust vote. Similarly, to address the fear that the 18 vacant seats could be filled up by holding by-elections, the court restrained the issue of a notification for bypolls. A stay of the disqualification would have addressed the fears of those disqualified as well as obviated the need for the questionable stay on the floor test to be extended. Thereafter, only the constitutionally relevant question on whether the Governor ought to be directed to order a trust vote would have remained for adjudication. While adjudicating constitutional questions, courts ought not to take recourse to the civil law principle of ‘balance of convenience’ and pass orders appearing to give some relief to all parties.
  • The main basis for the challenge to the disqualification of 18 legislators is the 2011 judgment in the Karnataka case when B.S. Yeddyurappa was Chief Minister. The Supreme Court had quashed the disqualification on the ground that the Speaker had given insufficient opportunity and time, but it had also noted that approaching the Governor to set in motion a constitutional process to replace the Chief Minister could not attract the drastic action of removal from the House. Speaker Dhanapal’s order has tried to address many such issues, but it will still have to be tested against the proposition that expressing lack of confidence in the Chief Minister may not amount to voluntarily giving up the party membership.

The disqualification trick


  • Taking up disqualification petitions for adjudication just ahead of a floor test has now become a pattern. Disqualifying rebellious MLAs seems to be a favoured way of ensuring the majority of a Chief Minister. The time may have come to amend the law conferring on the Speaker the authority to adjudicate questions of defection. When the floor test remains the sole and supreme means of ascertaining majority, the partisan element should be taken out of anti-defection law, and the adjudicatory power be transferred to an independent body such as the Election Commission.