High-level panel counsels caution on GM food crops

Suggests setting up of special environment courts

November 30, 2014 06:49 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:29 pm IST - NEW DELHI

The government-appointed High Level Committee (HLC) to review environmental laws, while proposing a near complete overhaul of the regulatory system, has sounded a note of caution on genetically modified (GM) food crops.

In a report submitted recently on its review of six laws, the HLC headed by former Cabinet Secretary T.S.R. Subramanian, said the potential consequences of mindless use of science and technology could possibly be illustrated by referring to the potential for medium/ long-term adverse affects through unprepared introduction of GM food crops. While other Ministries naturally would aggressively push for early field trials and induction, the HLC said the role of the Environment Ministry may have to be one of being a Devil’s Advocate to advise due caution. It said that Europe does not permit field trials, and that the average Indian farm is of very small size (which could lead to severe adverse impact on biodiversity through gene-flow) and also noted that there are no independent expert agencies in the country, and perhaps the Ministry of Environment may ask for greater assurance in respect of potential adverse effects in the medium and long run. The HLC takes this aspect of assurance and good faith further in its new proposed law, the Environment Laws (Management) Act (ELMA). The new law prescribes new offences, as also for establishing special environment courts presided over by a session’s judge and higher penalties.

The proposed new law will have an overriding effect on all other relevant laws. However, the proposed legislation prescribes that the application for environmental clearances expects the applicant to be honest and truthful — the concept of ‘utmost good faith’ is statutorily introduced, and the consequences of breach are also set out.

The Committee which was criticized for inadequate consultation and its brief time frame of three months, however, felt that most pending issues were addressed constructively, and equally a roadmap has been suggested for continuous monitoring of the legal, legislative and management framework in this field. It noted that among the most important gaps in the present regime, the issue of enforcement of conditions of approval remains nearly totally unattended and needs to be addressed effectively. It called for the setting up of a new All India Service called the Indian Environment Service. The present monitoring regime is heavily dependent on field verification through ‘inspectors’. It also noted that the cause of environment preservation is not adequately met by the present monitoring methods.

The HLC has said forest areas with 70 per cent or more canopy cover and protected areas should be notified as ‘no go’ areas and suggested a slew of other measures for forest protection. However, it said that where there are considerations of national interest and issues relating to safeguarding the territorial integrity of the country, activities may be permitted in such areas subject to the prior and specific approval of the Union Cabinet.

In keeping with the Centre’s desire to dilute the Forest Rights act (FRA), the HLC has said that for linear projects, it is recommended that FRA needs amendment to consider removal of the condition of Gram Sabha approval. However, there is already an order from the Eenvironment Ministry to this effect. It said that forest and environmental clearances should time bound and streamlined.

While environmentalists have fought for increased regulation in wildlife areas during festivals, the HLC says India has a varied and glorious cultural tradition. While there are many national festivals, there are also localised festivals which are of great local importance in different States. Nature and animal worship has been part of the national culture. Thus, for example Nag Panchami in many States is celebrated and snakes worshipped during five days in Shravan month, as a “thousands years-old’ tradition. It is to be noted that the snakes are never harmed — indeed are worshipped during this period. A dispensation in the various Schedules should be permitted to take into account such local practices, and reflect them in their approved schedules, through gazette notification, the HLC said.

It called for Wildlife Management plans to be made mandatory, the demarcation of eco sensitive zones to be enforced around all protected areas and proposed the banning of polythene bags and plastic bottles into Protected areas. It has proposed to create new agencies, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) at the national level and the State Environment Management Authority (SEMA) for each State as the pivotal authorities to process applications for a one-window composite environmental clearance. The NEMA and SEMA will replace the Central Pollution Control Board and State Pollution Control Boards.

On the question of public hearing, the HLC recommends that the method of public consultation prescribed in the existing notification should continue with the modification that only environmental, rehabilitation and resettlement issues are captured in the public hearing. A mechanism should be put in place to ensure that “only genuine local participation” is permitted. The extant provision of dispensing with public hearing should be continued only in respect of situations when it is reported that local conditions are not conducive to the conduct of hearing, or in the matters of projects of strategic importance and national importance. There is no necessity for public hearing in locations where settlements are located away from the project sites.

It also takes away the role of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) which under the proposed ELMA, will only be able to judicially review the decision of Appellate Boards. The Special Environment Courts shall dispose of cases expeditiously and normally within six months. Aggrieved parties may approach an appellate board presided over by a retired high court judge. The HLC also called for streamlining of the assessment process, preparation a perspective coal plan from a sustainable point of view, creating an Environment Reconstruction Fund for facilitating research, standard setting, education and related matters, and putting in place systems for managing solid waste.

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