COMMENT, NEW DELHI: The first thing that strikes one about the report of the high-powered committee to review six top environmental laws, headed by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian, is the sheer audacity of preparing it in just three months.
It hardly does justice to the complexity of national and state-level legislation to do this in such indecent haste.
As may be expected, there was hardly any public consultation. Environmentalists could only submit up 130 words on each of the six major laws that were being reviewed.
In Bangalore, the committee walked out of a public hearing midway. This negates the arduous work that has gone into drafting these laws and the people’s struggles that have led to such enactments.
Green laws are not, as is often thought, a whim on the part of some autocratic leader – Indira Gandhi’s promulgation of the Coastan Regulation Zone legislation being a frequently cited example – but a much-delayed response to flagrant violations on the ground.
Contrary to public perception, the UPA government was by no means the custodian of the nation’s environment.
The feisty environment minister Jairam Ramesh was replaced by a more pliant Jayanthi Natarajan who, in turn, made way for Veerappa Moily who cleared virtually anything that came his way.
Between 2007 and 2014, power plants with a capacity of 250,000MW were cleared, twice what the Planning Commission estimated was needed by 2022.
The Subramanian committee itself admits that 99% of cases were cleared.
As much as the letter of the report, it is the spirit that has to be scrutinised. What was the provocation for reviewing green laws?
Minister after NDA minister have made it abundantly clear that the present government views such legislation as an obstacle to economic growth.
While there is indeed a case for simplifying laws and procedures, the intent is quite different. The report specifically cites the need to make “doing business easier in the country”.
During the controversy over the Intelligence Bureau’s castigation of Greenpeace and other green NGOs for costing the country 2-3% of the GDP, it was pointed out how, quite to the contrary, the World Bank estimated that environmental degradation was extracting a toll of Rs3.75 trillion (US$80 billion) a year, amounting to 5.7% of the GDP.
This ought to serve as a dampener to leaders who are gung-ho about resorting to industrialisation and building infrastructure by giving short shrift to environmental considerations.
This paper reported how over 230 projects have been cleared by the environment ministry since May; a fifth were from Gujarat.
Environment minister Prakash Javadekar himself has assured the Maharashtra CM that “development” projects in Mumbai which were stalled by his ministry, such as the coastal road to connect the western suburbs to the island city, would be speedily cleared.
It is against this backdrop that the Subramanian report has to be examined.
The most sweeping recommendation is the enactment of an entirely new Environmental Laws (Management) Act or ELMA, which will create a National Environment Management Authority or NEMA.
Correspondingly, there will a State Environmental Authority or SEMA. These will replace the Central Pollution Control Board and the State Pollution Control Boards, as well as environmental committees appointed by the Supreme Court (SC).
Wouldn’t it have been better to reform the existing boards than institute an entirely new authority, whose remit is to clear projects as speedily as possible?
Thus the Environment Pollution Control Authority, set up by the apex court, mooted a ban on diesel vehicles in Delhi and played an advisory role on crucial issues such as fuel quality and vehicle emissions.
The Central Empowered Committee, set up similarly after widespread environmental violations, looked at illegal mining in states such as Odisha, Goa, Karnataka and the western ghats.
It was on this basis that the SC cancelled many mining leases. These will now be subsumed.
‘Principle of consent’ at stake
The powerful National Green Tribunal, set up in 2010, was not one of the acts reviewed by the committee but even prior to it, the environment ministry was contemplating diluting its powers.
At present, appeals against clearances can be made within six months before the tribunal but the committee proposes an appellate board for this purpose and within 30 days only.
As can well be imagined, the constitution of this board can stack the cards heavily against justice.
One of the worrying recommendations is the “fast track” procedure for “linear” projects such as roads and railway lines, as well as power or mining projects and projects of national importance.
This dovetails with the NDA’s emphasis on promoting growth through infrastructure.
For instance, the urbanisation on either side of the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor, including smart cities, could conceivably fall under such categories and be ushered in without too much scrutiny.
Another is the doing away with of public hearings and consultation with villagers in the case of projects of “strategic” and “national importance”.
Only “genuine local participation” will be permitted, which closes the door to NGOs.
This circumscribes the Forest Rights Act, a flagship UPA law, which was not under review, but is now sought to be amended.
The proposal strikes at the very root of the principle of consent from all stakeholders whenever a major project threatens the environment.
Recipe for disaster
According to official data, as many as 50 million people have been displaced in 50 years by “development” projects in the country.
It was after protracted struggles, such as that over the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat, that the principle of prior consultation has been enshrined and is now in jeopardy.
Yet another concern is giving project proponents the benefit of doubt by accepting their word in “utmost good faith”.
It is common knowledge that proponents are economical with the truth when it comes to specifying environmental safeguards.
Time and again, environmental impact assessments are cut-and-paste jobs, with consultants paying obeisance to their clients.
Combined with the penchant of the present government to push projects through recklessly, this is a recipe for disaster.
Finally, the committee seeks to replace the definition of “forest” by “treeland”, a term which is unprecedented in global jurisprudence.
It declares areas with 70% canopy cover out of bounds for projects, but this only applies to a minuscule proportion of the country which is already protected as sanctuaries, national parks and tiger reserves.
Is the remaining area up for grabs? By Darryl D’Monte, chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI)/PTI