For India’s forests, coastal stretches and agricultural lands, 2009 was quite a tumultuous year. With an average of 100 industrial and infrastructure projects granted clearance every month of the year, the contest for habitat, livelihoods, and claiming rights over them was visible. Aiding all this was an efficient regulatory regime “meant” to protect the biodiverse and fragile environment of the country.
Photo: Hemant Mishra / Mint
The mid-year national election brought in a wave of changes, with a much more confident and stronger United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Jairam Ramesh took charge as the new minister of state for environment and forests amid mixed responses. His accessibility to civil society did revive a much-needed dialogue, but scepticism around the bias and workings of the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) loomed large.
And why not? The intention to further dilute the rather limp Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of 2006—that regulates environmental clearance of development projects—was mooted in the very first month of 2009. When Ramesh took charge, the proposal was alive. Through a rather secretive process in the previous year, MoEF had churned out a series of amendments to the environment clearance regime regulated through the EIA notification. Among other things, the amendments had suggested a process of self-certification for modernization and expansion projects; increase in the threshold limits for construction and real estate projects; and decisions at the state level to be allowed based on majority rather than consensus.
It took almost a year for the changes to be realized, with the final set of amendments being issued at the end of the year in December. This was following a half-attempt to involve civil society groups prior to taking any decisions. The status quo was maintained for construction projects and riders were inserted for the decision-making option. And the ministry’s internal committee completely ruled out the self-certification option that allowed for industrial operations to determine whether their expansion led to increase in pollution load or not. Inserting this last change only deferred it in the light of another major change the ministry had in the offing—the setting up of a National Environment Protection Authority (NEPA).
NEPA, it appears, has a predetermined fate. Much before the nation can debate whether or not the new institutional structure for regulating the environment is needed, the Prime Minister is already in an agreement for assistance with the US Environmental Protection Authority for setting it up. If NEPA does see the light of day as presented in MoEF’s September note, it will mean that on the topic of pollution and environmental clearances, the ministry keeps with itself the negotiations and law making and hands over the tasks of implementation to a body of professional and scientific experts. So, in practice, this body will be bound by the laws of the environment ministry and yet give an impression on paper of being independent.
The year that went by also saw the new minister defer the issuance of the new coastal management zone (CMZ) notification to determine what kind of activities could be allowed on India’s coast. This CMZ proposal, which received flak from fishing communities, had been in the offing for the last four-five years. It would have allowed for scientific management of India’s coastal areas, lifting the binding restrictions on the kind of industrial and infrastructure activities that could be allowed within 500m of the high tide line in any particular coastal stretch. A series of consultations with fisherfolk and civil society groups were carried out, but a final decision has been kept on hold. Meanwhile, MoEF in partnership with, and through financial assistance from, the World Bank has already initiated the process of preparing the integrated coastal zone management plans in a few states. Ironically, such planning is a core element of the proposed CMZ.
Another solution in the pipeline is the National Green Tribunal (NGT) Bill, termed by many lawyers and environmentalists as a Trojan horse. NGT seeks to replace two existing redressal mechanisms—the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) and the National Environment Tribunal (NET)—which have never been allowed to realize their full potential by the UPA. NET was never set up and NEAA never functioned with a full forum. Today, it continues to admit and dismiss cases with ease, with only one member reigning supreme on the decisions. NGT’s mandate is vast, bringing within its fold many more laws than what the above two bodies had proposed under their respective mandates. With restrictions on who can approach the tribunal, the Bill was sneaked into the monsoon session of Parliament and is slated to be reviewed in the budget session of 2010.
These are big and substantial measures that are likely to leave a lasting mark on regulating India’s environment. But what will it bring for each piece of forest slotted for diversion, every coast managed for growth, and every acre of agriculture marked for a price?
There is no sound of retreat or retrace—one that will leave the environment alone to thrive. All this climate of change brings are new institutions, designed to systematically and efficiently maintain the same clearance mantra. The affected earth remains lost in numbers at the end of each year.
Kanchi Kohli is a member of the Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group. Comments are welcome at email@example.com