Sunday Anchor

An unequal battle

For an illustration of Orwellian doublespeak, parse an August 29 notification of the Union Environment and Forests Ministry. While one would expect a ministry with this name to protect environment and forests, one of the four terms of reference in the notification constituting a high-level committee to review five green laws gives an ominous indication: “to recommend specific amendments needed in each of these Acts to bring them in line with current objectives to meet requirements.” These words clearly couch intention with clever jugglery of words.

What the notification actually does is to set the ground rules for an unequal battle between environment and development. The new committee will review the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981; the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974; the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980; the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986; and the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The Indian Forest Act, 1927, has been added as an afterthought.

While Union Minister of State for Environment Prakash Javadekar reiterates the need for sustainable growth, on the ground, moves are afoot to give unabashed legitimacy to what earlier used to be wilful disregard of the law.

The committee was formed in a surprise move to assess the status of implementation of each of these Acts vis-à-vis their objectives and to examine and take into account various court orders and judicial pronouncements with regard to them. The humungous task before the committee, which was to give its report in two months, was another bone of contention. After much criticism, its tenure has been extended by a month to November 28. The panel attracted criticism from the word go. It is headed by the former Cabinet Secretary T.S.R. Subramanian, and has as members Vishwanath Anand, former Environment Secretary; Justice (Retd.) A.K. Shrivastav, former judge of the Delhi High Court; and K.N. Bhat, former Additional Solicitor-General.

Lawyer Ritwick Dutta says the Environment Protection Act alone has over 25 to 30 related notifications, each of which will take a long time to review. The time frame is unrealistic, and there is dismay over the lack of clarity on the terms of reference, the lack of public consultation and the constitution of the committee which does not have the expertise to undertake this task.

People were expected to respond with suggestions limited to 1,000 characters online (though later an e-mail option was introduced); those who sent in suggestions say they did not receive any acknowledgement.

Last week in Chennai, activists claimed they got a fair idea of what could be in store at the end of the review exercise. The committee’s consultation, only by invitation from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, took place in a seven-star hotel to which people who might be affected by the proposed changes had no access. A former Member Secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board, B. Sengupta, presented an outline of what the committee could look into, though there was no clarity on whether he did it on behalf of the committee or as an independent expert.

Some of the presentations made at the consultation wanted public infrastructure projects to be exempted from mandatory public hearings, which are often a joke anyway. Last October, protests broke out at the Cheyyur Ultra Mega Power Project in Tamil Nadu as angry villagers blocked the site visit of investors and held a black flag protest against what they termed a “farcical” public hearing. In the meetings the committee has had with the public in Bhubaneshwar and Patna, environment groups said that there was no advance notice about the consultations. In Mangalore, it lasted an hour, says the EIA Resource and Response Centre, Goa.

The consultation in Bangalore on September 27 lasted 40 minutes and ended with the members of the committee walking out, according to those present. There were patient hearings for experts and NGOs in New Delhi, again only by invitation from the Ministry.

It is not as if the Ministry is in a consultative mood. Already orders diluting the Forest Rights Act and the Environmental Impact Assessment notification have been issued, which clearly favour the industry. On July 28, the Ministry issued another office memorandum easing conditions for coal projects. In December 2012, the Environment Ministry of the United Progressive Alliance issued guidelines for exemption from public hearing in respect of existing coal mining projects which apply for one-time capacity expansion of up to 25 per cent in the existing mining operation. A slew of concessions were made this year for the coal industry after the new government took charge. The Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee has recommended that in-principle clearance be given for mining lease renewals without Forest Rights Act (FRA) compliance.

The FRA too has been under attack and in the latest assault on October 28, the Ministry says proposals seeking approval of the Centre for diversion of plantations which were notified as forests on a day less than 75 years before December 13, 2005 and are located in villages having no recorded tribal population are exempted from the requirement of initiation and completion of the process for vesting forest rights. In such cases, a certificate from the district will be enough for approval for diversion of that land. The new order takes away the role of the gram sabha in taking decisions and empowers the Collector who is not an authority under the FRA.

In February, the Ministry exempted road construction projects, canals, laying of pipelines, optical fibres and transmission lines, where linear diversion of use of forest land in several villages is involved, from obtaining consent from the gram sabha. OnJuly 4, the Ministry issued guidelines which said that proposals seeking prior approval under the Forest Conservation Act for prospecting on forest land are exempt from the requirement of submission of documentary evidence in support of settlement of rights in accordance with the FRA.

India’s environment laws are many, some of them enacted after Supreme Court judgments, bitter struggles or major disasters such as the Bhopal gas tragedy. The main thrust of the law is to protect natural resources and people’s rights with a regulatory mechanism, and not give a free hand to the industry. The implementation, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired but this is never a subject for any high-level assessment. The new government wants to loosen that regulatory regime to favour industrial growth, which will have its own grave consequences.


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