Jairam Ramesh, the new Minister of State with Independent Charge for Environment and Forests, must have drawn up his own agenda for action. May one submit the following additions to his list, if they are not already there?

— Change the thinking about environmental concerns in the government and industry.

— Rescue the environment and ecology from the National Environment Policy 2006 and the EIA Notification of the same year.

— Rescue the EIA system and procedures from their present disreputable state.

— Rescue our dead and dying rivers.

— Bring about a change from focussing on one aspect at a time in an exclusive manner to an integrated, holistic way of thinking.

Those cryptic statements are elaborated in the ensuing paragraphs.

Environmental concerns: right and wrong thinking

Up to the 1950s and 60s, environmental concerns were virtually absent in this country. However, from the 1970s, environmental and ecological concerns began to emerge. The Water Pollution Control Act was passed in 1974, and the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) in 1980. The Ministry of Environment and Forests was established in 1985, and the Environment Protection Act (EPA) was passed in 1986. Environmental Impact Assessments began to be undertaken. In parallel, there was also a growing awareness of the trauma of displacement and the importance of satisfactory resettlement and rehabilitation policies and packages.

Unfortunately, from the mid-1990s there has been a retreat from those beginnings of enlightenment because of two factors: first, the hardening of official attitudes resulting from the fierce controversies over the Sardar Sarovar (Narmada) Project and the Tehri Hydro-Electric Project; and secondly, the change in economic philosophy leading to increasing impatience with concerns that ran counter to the pursuit of ‘growth’ and ‘development’. From that perspective, scrutiny and clearance under the Forest Conservation Act or the Environment Protection Act seemed ‘hurdles’ or ‘negative factors’. That line of thinking led to the National Environment Policy 2006, followed by the new EIA Notification of 2006. The report of an Expert Committee headed by Secretary Economic Affairs which has recently been in the news is merely a continuation of those trends, and is therefore hardly surprising.

It is this kind of thinking that has to change. The damage done by the NEP 2006 and the EIA Notification 2006 needs to be urgently undone, and the strength of the EPA restored.

EIAs: system and procedures

It is common knowledge that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) in this country are poor in quality. The EIA consultant, however reputable, has an interest in coming to the conclusion that the adverse impacts of the project can be remedied or mitigated or compensated for, and that the project will still remain viable. A consultant who says: “The impacts of this project are too grave to be mitigated or offset: the project should not be undertaken” is unlikely to secure many assignments.

Even with a good EIA, the cost-benefit calculus is a flawed basis for decision-making for reasons that cannot be detailed here. This is not an argument against EIAs or cost-benefit analyses; they are necessary; this is merely a plea that their limitations as the basis for investment decisions be recognised.

The answer is to make EIAs truly independent both of the people preparing the projects and of those approving them. EIAs should be made a professional undertaking akin to the practice of law or medicine or audit, with a statutory charter under the Environment Protection Act, a professional council, codes of conduct, disbarment provisions, etc.

Such institutional arrangements are no guarantors of quality or integrity, as we know from our experience in relation to the other professions mentioned; but they will mark a great advance over the present situation. (Incidentally, EIAs must encompass or be supplemented by assessments of social and cultural impacts as well.)

There should also be an independent, statutory Environmental Regulatory Authority established under the Environment Protection Act. Many of the functions now performed by the Ministry should be transferred to the Regulatory Authority.

What is particularly important is that the project proposers should not choose their own EIA consultants, or be their paymasters. The nomination of the EIA agency in each case, and payments to that agency, should be made by the Regulatory Authority or on its recommendations.

Appraisal Committees under the EPA and the FCA can be co-opted or subverted through inappropriate manning. There is reason to fear that this is happening. If an Environmental Regulatory Authority is established, the appointments to the Appraisal Committees can be left to that Authority.

Saving rivers

There are many dying rivers in the country, but the Minister will be immediately concerned with the Ganga and the Yamuna. In the case of the Ganga, a Ganga Basin Authority has been set up by a notification under The Environment Protection Act. There are some questions about the route chosen for its creation but, leaving them aside, the Authority is likely to become a top-down, centralising body dominated by the Central bureaucrats, unless care is taken to make it a representative, participatory body. Careful re-thinking is needed on the composition and style of functioning of the GBA, as also on what it needs to do beyond the concerns of the EPA.

Insofar as the pollution aspect is concerned, it is now generally acknowledged that after 10 years and Rs. 9000 crore, Phase I of the Ganga Action Plan has achieved precious little. It makes no sense to go on as before. Radical thinking is needed. Some time ago, two alternative plans for Phase II, one by the U.P. Jal Nigam and the other by Vir Bhadra Singh, were presented at a meeting in Varanasi. One does not know what the final decision was. This is a matter that needs urgent attention — and fresh thinking — on the part of the Minister.

Turning to the Yamuna, there are two different though inter-related problems: the heavily polluted state of the river (it is virtually a sewer), and the continuing encroachment on its floodplains. Insofar as the pollution aspect is concerned, lessons need to be drawn from the Ganga experience and the mistakes made there avoided. This is therefore linked with the previous paragraph. As for the floodplains aspect, the errors already made seem irreversible. From the floodplains perspective, the location of the Akshardham temple complex was wrong; so was the location of the Metro structures. Those errors cannot be corrected now. The time for moving the Commonwealth Games to another site has also perhaps passed. However, that matter is before the courts. All that one can do now is to limit the damage to the extent possible, and not add further to it.

Unfortunately, Dr. E. Sreedharan of DMRC, for whom one has the greatest admiration, has come forward with some questionable ideas. His prescription for the Yamuna is to confine the river within walls and go in for ‘river-front development’. This is as wrong as one can get, and it is the utter negation of the very idea of ‘floodplains’. He cites the examples of European rivers. There is a world of difference between the European rivers and the Himalayan rivers in terms of size, magnitude of floods, proneness to occasional catastrophic floods, and the sediment load carried. Confining the Yamuna between walls is an invitation to disaster. As for river-front real estate development, the less said the better. One hopes that the Environment Minister will go into this very carefully.

Holistic view

Finally, environmental concerns have tended to be segmented, focussing on one theme at a time, such as ‘forests,’ ‘wildlife,’ ‘bio-diversity’ or ‘the environment’. All these are inter-related, and human beings are a part of the environment. It is necessary to ensure a holistic view encompassing all these themes as well as the vital nature-wildlife-human inter-relationships. Thinking even within the Environment Ministry has to change in this regard