By Meena Menon
For some years now, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF)has been perceived as a roadblock to development or a facilitator for the industry depending on which side you are on. Former Union Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan’s recent letter to Sonia Gandhi also alludes to the conflict in the Ministry.
The Ministry had humble beginnings: it began as a department in 1980 and was set up as a Ministry in 1985 after India’s participation in the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. It was in many ways Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s leadership and participation in Stockholm which prompted the Ministry’s inception. Now, India has a plethora of laws which relate to the environment and its regulation.
Over time, even as many notifications have come into force after Supreme Court orders, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) was set up in 2010 — infinitely more effective than the earlier National Environment Appellate Authority. However, enforcement is far from satisfactory.
The raging debate between environment and development is even more intense now as the country is on an ambitious growth path and there is scant regard for people’s rights or natural resources. Union Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar has repeatedly said there will be no destructive development. Yet, ordinances on the proposed changes to the Land Acquisition Act and on mines and minerals have led to fears that amendments to environmental laws will be brought in through ordinances.
All over the country there are struggles against projects which threaten to displace people, deprive them of land and livelihoods and give them no decent alternatives. Northeast India, ignored by policymakers for long, has become the new battleground against massive hydel projects. In this scenario, protection of the environment and people’s livelihoods are pitted against the powerful industry lobby and there are no prizes for guessing who is winning. The recent ordinances on land acquisition and mining leave no room for doubt that business interests have prevailed.
There are also threats to dilute the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Last August, the MoEF decided to appoint a High-Level Committee (HLC) headed by a former Cabinet Secretary to review six environmental laws. As the committee’s report created disquiet, it is now being reviewed by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment which has already heard one round of criticism from leading environmentalists in the country.
The HLC went straight for the jugular and targeted the regulatory mechanism. The only reasoned suggestion it seems to have made is on genetically modified (GM) crops where it advocates caution.
“Protection of the environment and people’s livelihoods are now pitted against the powerful industry lobby”
Besides that, that it has proposed a new Environment Law (Management) Act under which new offences are prescribed, applicants who want environmental clearances for projects are expected to be honest and truthful, and the concept of ‘utmost good faith’ is statutorily introduced. The HLC dilutes the role of the NGT; the Tribunal will only be able to judicially review the decision of Appellate Boards. It introduces special environment courts and proposes new agencies — the National Environment Management Authority at the national level and the State Environment Management Authority to replace the Central Pollution Control Board and State Pollution Control Boards, both of which are notorious for their inaction and corruption. Replacing them with a new set of committees is not going to improve efficiency or honesty. Little wonder then that the report of the HLC has sparked nationwide outrage.
While Mr. Javadekar said the report was a historic achievement that would strengthen processes to balance developmental commitments and environment protection, the criticism is that it seeks to dismantle the basic structure of India’s environmental law. The report violates Article 21 of the Constitution since interests of industry have been given importance, and overrides the right to clean air, water and a balanced ecosystem, said a critique titled “A Recipe for Climate Disaster and Silencing People’s Voice” by environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta, and activists Himanshu Thakkar and Manoj Mishra and Debi Goenka. The critique notes that recommendations of the HLC suggest dispensing with public hearings in projects of “strategic” and “national importance” and dispensing with public hearings in most regions that are already severely polluted. This is based on the theory that there is no need to hear the affected public since the situation cannot possibly get worse. The power sector and coal mining projects undefined ‘fast track treatment’ through ‘Special Procedure’ that appear likely to short-circuit or eliminate public hearings and gram sabha approval. The way in which the revised procedure is recommended, approval will be a matter of right, the critique says.
Further, in the 113-page report, the word “speed” in the context of speedy clearances is mentioned 13 times, the critique added. The emphasis swiftly shifts from concern for the environment to “time-consuming clearance processes.” In addition to exempting the public from hearing these projects, the committee has also made recommendations on who can participate in the public hearing and what issues can be raised. For instance, only environmental, rehabilitation and resettlement issues can be heard by the public, though the present Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2006 allows all persons to participate in the public consultation process.
In addition, the report enforces the stereotype that environmentalists obstruct development. It refers to “genuine public participation” as though public hearings are not genuine otherwise.
The government’s decisions to block funding for Greenpeace and other environment NGOs and not allow a campaigner to go abroad to speak on coal mining in Mahan are clear indications that dissent is not going to be tolerated. Last year’s Intelligence Bureau report on NGOs explicitly sets out an agenda to curb movements which question the current development path. In Gujarat the fisherfolk of Mundra who have been displaced by a major power plant have not been given project-affected status; in Odisha, gram sabhas’ opposition to coal mining has been disregarded. People fighting battles for survival have only one option: to approach the courts or the NGT. Sometimes, even court orders are not obeyed.
The Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the nodal agency for the FRA, has been writing stern letters to the Environment Ministry emphasising the fact that the FRA is not delaying project clearances. The multilayered approach for project clearances is time-consuming. While appreciating the need for speedy approvals, public participation must not be lost sight of.
India is rife with examples of development refugees — farmers have been displaced by the Bargi dam in Madhya Pradesh, the Baiga are being evicted from forests where they once thrived, fisherfolk are struggling for survival, among other examples. To add to this, there is a new genre of climate refugees who are affected by the rise in sea levels, changes in cropping patterns and other climate change impacts.
Sustainable development needs serious commitment, capacity building at the local level and urgent action. Science has clearly underscored the need for urgent action if the world has to be saved from the irreversible impacts of climate change. The HLC is silent on climate change for the most part and it will be astounding if India, poised to grow more, doesn’t factor in climate change while “streamlining” its environmental laws. In the urgency to grant industry its due with promises of ‘Make in India,’ those already in India, especially the marginalised, cannot continue to be victims of grave policy neglect and continuing alienation.
First published in The Hindu.