While the tigers versus tribals debate has taken more media space since the United Progressive Alliance government took over in 2004, it is the other legislation enacted in the past few years that may have a greater bearing on India’s environment.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006—passed in 2008—recognized the historical injustice done to some of India’s marginalized people.
The 2006 amendments to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, led to establishing the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the National Wildlife Crime Control Bureau to contain the dip in tiger populations.
These laws have the potential to either create history in conservation or become big blunders if politically mismanaged.
The new mechanism of environmental impact assessment reports—put in place under a revised notification in 2006—and the recent proposed amendments to replace the existing coastal regulation zone notification under the Environment Protection Act, clearly show that environmental concerns will always be sacrificed in favour of development.
Institutions such as the National Environment Appellate Authority, set up to hear the grievances against injudicious development, have been headless for several years, and almost no effort has gone into making the appellate authority an independent and robust watchdog to punish errant companies. We hardly hear of projects being rejected on environmental grounds. Moreover, National Environmental Tribunals are yet to be constituted despite 14 years of the law coming into effect.
So, what does all this depict?
Clearly, a disjointed thought process, and a lack of vision and priority on environmental concerns. While the threat of climate change looms large, little has been done to correct the mess within the country although we are quite vocal about it abroad.
This government’s rule also saw a slew of committees, councils and commissions—empowered committees on environment and forests, Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, forestry commissions, etc.—but their impact is yet unknown. Only time will tell whether these were lip service and not a serious attempt to let good minds think through environmental problems.
Add to it the numerous expert groups on several aspects of environmental governance. The problem has been lack of clear vision and expectations of such groups. While they have the potential to steer environmental thinking in the right direction, it has often been reduced to endorsing foreign visits of bureaucrats.
Some initiatives aimed at fuelling economic growth have not taken environmental concerns at all into its design: first is the race to create special economic zones without taking into account the concerns of the people who may be impacted or the environment that may be destroyed; the second is the euphoria over energy security that led to a nuclear agreement, with little safeguards to avert hazards.
However, there are some silver linings, too, that need to be highlighted.
The ministry of new and renewable energy has initiated a process of drafting a new renewable energy law for India—a clear need, not only from the perspective of developing clean energy but also from the climate-mitigation standpoint in the long run.
Similarly, the ministry of environment and forests has initiated a process of simplifying and strengthening the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, besides addressing the menace of global trade in wildlife products.
Further, the new initiatives on landscape management are definitely a move towards a more matured conservation regime.
Sanjay Upadhyay is founder and managing partner, Enviro Legal Defence Firm, an environmental law firm.
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