Clearance without compliance

SLASH AND BURN: By proposing to reduce the worth of environmental laws, the government is doing a serious disservice which can have irreversible consequences. Picture shows a jhum field in Guwahati, Assam. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar   | Photo Credit: Ritu_Raj_Konwar;Ritu_Raj_Konwar - Ritu Raj Konwar

Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar’s answer in Parliament on August 13 on the reconstitution of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) is worth examining. In reply to four questions by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Lok Sabha member M.B. Rajesh on the Board being recast without the mandatory number of non-government members and the reasons for violations, he blandly said this was done through a notification dated July 22.

While the Board was reconstituted, it did not have the five mandatory NGO representatives or the ten persons to be nominated by the Central government from among eminent conservationists, ecologists and environmentalists, as mandated by Section 5A of the Wildlife Protection Act. Besides, the notification only referred to the Standing Committee. It was not surprising therefore that the Supreme Court on August 25 stayed the decisions of the diluted Standing Committee of the NBWL, after a petition challenged the constitution of the Board.

Speedy clearances

This is only the latest instance that diminishes any hope of transparency or adherence to the law in the new government’s Environment Ministry. On July 28, the Ministry issued another office memorandum easing conditions for coal projects — all in the interests of ramping up coal production — which were initiated by the previous Congress-led regime. In December 2012, the United Progressive Alliance’s Environment Ministry issued guidelines for exemption from public hearing with respect to existing coal mining projects which apply for one-time capacity expansion of up to 25 per cent in the existing mining operation. There are a slew of concessions this year for the coal industry after the new government took charge.

For all its purported sympathy for environment and sustainability, the powers that be didn’t think it fit to appoint a Minister dedicated to the environment. Mr. Javadekar has two other important portfolios and even if he admirably juggles between the Parliamentary Affairs, Information and Broadcasting, and Environment Ministries, there are many deficiencies. Not a day passes by without some proposal coming up to dilute existing green laws. The Minister is considering granting a general approval for projects near the China and Pakistan borders where some 6,000 kilometres of roads were pending and there was need for vital installations and infrastructure. The need for speedy clearances was addressed in the Ministry’s own notification in 2012 which said that in the case of border roads, proposals of the Ministry of Defence — a simplified pro forma for simultaneous clearance under the Forest Conservation Act and wildlife clearance — was being adopted under a single-window system. One wonders what happened to that.

“Not a day passes by without some proposal coming up to dilute existing green laws”

The Forest (Conservation Act), 1980 expressly prohibits conversion of forest land to non-forest use without the Centre’s nod but this general approval would ensure that proposals need not go to the Centre at all. Some senior forest officials said unless the Act was amended, this kind of general approval could not be granted. However, Mr. Javadekar specified that no amendment was needed and the decision was in keeping with the law. Since 1980, the Centre has approved 11,29,294 hectares of forest land for various activities including ecotourism. With the forest cover at 69.79 million hectares or 21.23 per cent of the geographical area as against 33 per cent mandated by the National Forest Policy, the country cannot afford to lose more.

Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta told The Hindu that many dilutions have been in the offing for a long time, but in the case of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), it would be very difficult to recast it as an administrative or quasi-judicial body as suggested by reports. When asked, Mr. Javadekar ruled out any such change in the NGT. Mr. Dutta said the NGT cannot be wished away as it was an act of Parliament. “While green laws have been facing threats throughout, what is different now is the lack of concern for environment protection. While there was emphasis on transparency in the form of clearances, what about compliances? You cannot be selectively transparent.”

Lack of transparency

The top leadership in this government has repeatedly been talking of removing roadblocks to development. In the first meeting of the reconstituted Standing Committee of the NBWL, Mr. Javadekar reportedly said projects would not be held up due to “frivolous” reasons. The Standing Committee cleared most of the 140 proposals before it. The agenda of the meeting was not made public and neither was the notification appointing the new Committee. This lack of transparency can also be seen in the functioning of the Environment Ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) which had not met for over a year. This Committee also had over 70 pending proposals. In July, it cleared some genetically modified crop field trials. Unlike in the past, neither its agenda nor the minutes of the meeting are posted online.

The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006, is another casualty. As it is, the public hearings under the Act which are mandatory for projects have been reduced to a farce. A notification from the Environment Ministry on June 25, 2014, amended the process, exempting certain categories of projects from the EIA. But the most important change is that earlier projects that were within 10 kilometres of Protected Areas would have to be vetted by the NBWL, but now, that distance has been reduced to five km, says Pushp Jain of the EIA Resource and Response Centre. The guidelines by the Environment Ministry’s Wildlife division of December 19, 2012, (in pursuance of the order of the Supreme Court dated December 4, 2006) say that in case any project requiring environmental clearance is located within eco-sensitive zones around a Wildlife Sanctuary or National Park, or in absence of delineation of such a zone within a distance of 10 km from its boundaries, the project proponent is required to obtain recommendations of the Standing Committee of the NBWL. This has been modified to five km now.

There was much celebration after the Ministry launched online environmental and forest clearances in the last three months. Even though no time frame for clearances was specified, it is assumed that speed would be the essence. The Centre’s start has not been propitious despite its proclamations of sympathy for sustainable development. After 100 days of the new government, a four-member high-level committee headed by former Cabinet Secretary T.S.R. Subramanian was formed to examine five laws: the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. Among the four terms of reference in the order dated August 29 was that the committee would “recommend specific amendments needed in each of these acts to bring them in line with current requirements to meet objectives.” Coming after so many dilutions, this sounds very ominous.

All the laws that are being sought to be pared down have come in response to deep-seated motivations and environmental concerns. By proposing to reduce their worth, the government is doing a serious disservice which can have irreversible consequences.

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 8:23:52 AM |

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