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One major impediment to India’s ambition of achieving high growth, at least in the past decade, was the set of environment laws that stalled many large industrial projects and investments. The question for long has been one of balancing the needs of environmental sustainability with economic growth.

On the one hand, despite strict laws in favour of protecting the environment, forest resources continue to be depleted. The total forest cover of the country currently stands at 21%, which is far from the targeted 33% under the National Forest Policy of 1988. On the other hand, bureaucrats and politicians with the authority to provide project clearances at their own discretion have continued to engage in rampant rent-seeking. This has happened while genuine demands of growth have been foiled.

To set these problems right, in late August, the ministry of environment of the current government constituted a high-level committee under former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian. The committee was tasked with the job of reviewing six laws that come under the purview of the environment ministry, including the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986 and the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980. The review was supposed to tailor the laws on the environment to meet current policy requirements. Last week, the committee submitted a report recommending devolution of administrative powers currently vested with the ministry.

A new National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) has been proposed to take over the role of providing project clearances from the environment ministry. Further, it has been recommended that state-level bodies be streamlined and made answerable to the NEMA. The NEMA will then be given the power to override the decisions of state-level bodies under certain circumstances.

Apart from these modalities, the committee has called for stricter penalties for flouting environmental regulations, a stronger push towards afforestation and easier approvals for public projects.

The rationale behind these moves seems to be that of cutting down bureaucratic interference to the bare minimum and reduce opportunities for exercising the wrong kind of discretionary powers. It is further believed that giving overriding powers to the Union environment ministry will help keep a check on graft at the state level. The question, however, is how the new architecture of the bureaucracy dealing with environment is different in substance. It is not.

The task of allocating common resources in a way that concerns of both the environment and growth are properly balanced will always remain a discretionary process. Moreover, given that it has no clear solution various interest groups will almost always find themselves victimized. So far, community-based decision making has been tried in different pockets, but as the episode in the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha showed, the results may not always turn out to be in favour of industry or, for that matter, the community in question. One can save sacred hills and continue as before. But when the rest of the country grows that will leave the community poor. If that is an acceptable outcome, then there is nothing left to debate. Matters, however, never remain stationary. When communities feel left behind, the demand for social schemes and poverty alleviation are never far behind. These costs, too, must be considered a part of the overall cost of protecting the environment.

There is also the huge problem of rent-seeking, which governments like the current one try to address through changes in the structure of the bureaucracy. But, as with any bureaucratic setup despite multiple checks and balances even radical changes cannot cut down the room for discretionary policy action.

Adding to all this is the larger problem of poor management of common resources which has depleted the quality of important forest resources in the country. Policy action to decentralize the powers of resource management to local communities—since government bureaucrats have little incentive to engage in sustainable management—will help solve the problem of incentives driving resource managers. This is particularly important from the perspective of sustainability in a world where climate change is an alarming issue, as lack of any long-term interest is crucial to preserving the economic value of forest resources.

The challenge is to think of an alternative system that is different and can address these complex issues. Mere reshaping of the bureaucracy can only achieve short-term goals while kicking more serious issues down the road. What India needs today is an enlightened system to manage and preserve common property resources without sacrificing growth.

Can bureaucrats manage forest resources efficiently? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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