At any given point of time, trade-offs between preserving environment and pursuing resource-intensive growth are complex. Very often issues of long-term sustainability and immediate concerns are pitted against each other—something that leads to heated debate and choices that are controversial.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said an independent regulator would be established, one that would help resolve these conflicts. “We hope to establish an independent regulator—the National Environment Appraisal and Monitoring Authority soon,” he said. “ This authority could lead to a complete change in the process of granting environmental clearances. Staffed by dedicated professionals, it will work on a full-time basis to evolve better and more objective standards of scrutiny.”
In theory, this is possible and promising. Today, compared with, say, 20 years earlier, it is possible to price and calculate environmental damage with much greater certainty. A set of techno-economic criteria make it possible to divorce environmental decision making from political aspects of environmental administration. This should be the path that India should adopt. It is only fair that environmental impact of big projects be priced properly.
The question, however, is about the political viability of setting up an independent regulator. Will India’s political class allow that? In the past, too, such efforts have been made, but to no avail. The National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) was set up under the NEAA Act 1997. It served no purpose. Other similar efforts—backed by legislation—too have not borne fruit. Decision making remains political. This need not be so.
Today as in many other domains, governance is more a technical issue—evaluation of proposals, projects and options along with their costs— and political and activist rhetoric and decisions based on these have little relevance. Sure, if there are deviations from fairness and objectivity, political authority can step in—after all that is what it is for. But routine decisions, subject to clear rules of evaluation, are best left to experts: Every decision ought not to be subject to ministerial approval. A properly constituted environmental authority with environmental economists, judicial members and project appraisal experts is a sensible option.
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