The Environment Ministry proposes to soften the provisions of the Environment Protection Act (EPA) by replacing a clause that provides for imprisoning violators with one that only requires them to pay a fine. This, however, doesn’t apply to violations that cause grave injury or loss of life. The proposed fines, in lieu of imprisonment, are also 5-500 times greater than those currently levied.
The Act currently says that violators will be punishable with imprisonment up to five years or with a fine up to ₹1 lakh, or with both. Were violations to continue, an additional fine of up to ₹5,000 for every day during which such failure or contravention continues after the conviction would be levied. There’s also a provision for jail terms to extend to seven years.
The Environment Ministry in a note this week, laying out the rationale governing the amendments, said that it had received “suggestions” to decriminalise existing provisions of the EPA to weed out “fear of imprisonment for simple violations”.
The two major changes proposed are appointing an “adjudication officer” who would decide on a penalty in cases of environmental violations such as reports not being submitted or information not provided when demanded. “However, in case of serious violations which lead to grievous injury or loss of life, they shall be covered under the provision of Indian Penal Code, 1860 read with Section 24 of EP Act,” the document notes.
Funds collected as penalties would be accrued in an “Environmental Protection Fund”. In case of contraventions of the Act, the penalties could extend to anywhere from ₹5 lakh to ₹5 crore, the proposal notes. The Ministry has sought comments from the public on its proposals until July 21. The removal of prison terms also applies to the Air Act, that is the cornerstone legislation for dealing with air pollution, and the Water Act, which deals with violations to water bodies.
An analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment found that Indian courts took between 9-33 years to clear a backlog of cases for environmental violations.
Beginning 2018, close to 45,000 cases were pending trial and another 35,000 cases were added in that year. More than 90% cases were pending trial in five of the seven environment laws.
Environmentalist Vikrant Tongad said that the existing clause of imprisonment was to deter violators and not to imprison. The proposed penalties were too meagre and the proposed amendments opened up avenues for “large scale corruption” as the proposed ‘adjudication officers’ would be “arbitrary” in their decision making.