In his 1991 budget speech, finance minister Manmohan Singh made an emphatic declaration: “We cannot deforest our way to prosperity and we cannot pollute our way to prosperity". These were prescient words. While India had strong environmental legislation even in the pre-1991 era – the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, Water Act of 1974, Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, Air Act of 1981, and the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986 – this ‘Environment vs Growth’ debate has become much more salient in post-reform India.

So what has changed since 1991?

First, problems, and therefore the environmental issues, have become mainstream. As the pressure on the environment increased with development, environmentalism has moved from being an ‘elite’ issue discussed in seminars and conferences, to becoming a real issue affecting people’s daily lives, health and livelihoods. Witness the water table declines and extended droughts in Vidarbha and Bundelkhand. Or water logging in the Malwa region of Punjab which has affected the livelihoods of more than 2 lakh farmers. Or the pollution caused by unbridled mining and thermal power generation using poor quality coal in Chandrapur in Maharashtra that causes 10,000 people to fall sick of respiratory conditions every year. Or the pollution of the Ganga, where the effluent and sewage treatment capacity cannot treat even half the pollutants pumped into the river every day. Even the elites are now affected directly – witness the uproar on Delhi’s air pollution last winter, or the recent fire in the Deonar dumping group in India’s maximum city. Everywhere, the human impact of environmental pollution is surfacing very starkly.

Second, organized environmental advocacy has taken off. On the global stage, the Rio Convention (1992), the Kyoto Protocol (1997), and the subsequent ritual of annual climate change summits culminating in the Paris Agreement (2015) have meant that environment has obtained a prominent global profile. In India, NGOs have effectively used Public Interest Litigation (PILs) and Right to Information (RTI) as instruments of galvanizing action. The results is that no self-respecting government can today be seen to be soft or insensitive, at least in rhetoric, on environmental issues.

Third, judicial activism has taken root. In a little known but landmark move, the Supreme Court in 2002 set up a quasi-judicial body called the “Central Empowered Committee" (CEC) to “monitor the implementation of the Hon’ble Court’s orders and place reports of non-compliance before the Court" related to forestry issues, giving the committee sweeping powers. Working quietly and efficiently, CEC has functioned as an active watchdog on forestry related issues ever since. More vividly in popular perception, it was judicial action that forced the government to move the entire fleet of buses in Delhi to CNG in 2001. A number of ad hoc interventions by the court eventually culminated in the establishment of a National Green Tribunal in 2011, as a professional empowered judicial body to adjudicate on environment and forestry related cases.

Given these developments, the new buzzword is “balancing" growth with environmental protection. This is a welcome change in vocabulary. But have we figured out the right mechanisms that strike such a balance? Not yet: from the Sardar Sarovar Dam, to the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant, to the polluting tanneries of Kanpur, environmental issues remain highly contested. More than 1,600 cases have come before the National Green Tribunal in the last few years, and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Having seen some of these contestations closely in the last decade, I believe that environmental conservation and economic development are not an ‘either-or’ choice; solutions that strike a balance are indeed possible. The need of the hour is to think creatively.

First, we need to have ‘smarter’ regulation that leverages technology and markets. Environmental laws should not become the post-reform equivalent of the licence-quota-inspector raj. Technology-based tools and market approaches can make for better regulation. A great example was the Emissions Trading Scheme, conceived by the Ministry of Environment & Forests and Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) in 2011, where real-time emissions monitoring and trading (modeled on the famous ‘Acid Rain" program of the US) was launched in select industrial clusters. More such innovative approaches to pollution monitoring need to be mainstreamed.

Second, we need to revamp our outdated regulatory tools. India’s current Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process is broken. The project proponent chooses (and pays) consultants who conduct the assessment, mandatory public consultations are rarely held with integrity, and environmental damage is seldom quantified rigorously. EIAs need to be done by independent accredited professionals, and need to follow more robust methods that quantify the economic benefits and the environmental costs, surfacing trade-offs and outlining mitigation measures.

Lastly, we need to look at serious institutional strengthening. It is high time India has an independent, professional environmental regulator. A detailed blueprint for such an entity – a National Environmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority (NEAMA) – was put together in 2011. NEAMA was to be a permanent professional body, with adequate teeth and specialist expertise to appraise projects and monitor compliance. Last year, the Supreme Court stepped in and asked the government to constitute such an authority; however, there has been little progress since.

1991 reforms were the result of an economic crisis. Pushed to the wall, the establishment took notice and found an innovative path that unleashed India’s economic destiny. India today faces an environmental crisis. It is time for us to once again take notice, and chart an innovative path for the sake of India’s ecological destiny.

Varad Pande is a Partner at Dalberg, a strategic advisory firm dedicated to international development. He was previously special advisor to India’s Minister for Environment & Forests between 2009 and 2011.

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