On 6-7 April 2015, the environment and forest ministers of different states in India along with their executive functionaries gathered in New Delhi to “resolve” towards developing India’s environmental future.
The conference hosted by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) was inaugurated by the Prime Minister of the country and followed an earlier news report that it was going to lead to several resolutions allowing for “ease of business.” At the end of the conference, there were a clear set of resolutions adopted.
The background to the conference
There are a few important observations, which would be useful to understand. First, ever since the NDA government came into power in mid-2014, there have already been a series of executive orders and clarifications issued that have set rolling the government’s agenda for regulatory reform in the environment sector: granting power to the appraisal committees to ask additional questions; possible exemptions from public hearings for coal mine expansion projects; ensuring leniency of procedure for “linear” projects such as roads, railway lines, transmission lines; irrespective of impacts
Regular messages have conveyed that the greatest achievement of the MoEFCC is that it has been able to increase the rates of approval and streamline processes such that industrial and infrastructure projects have their way sooner than later. This narrative is not unique to the current government, but the tenor of the MoEFCC appears to showcase it as a ministry facilitating a better business environment rather than prioritising environmental protection.
While routine references are made to “development without destruction,” a close look at the existing and proposed reforms gives a sense that the objective lies elsewhere. Destruction is a “necessary”concomitant of the industry-oriented development envisaged. At best it can be managed through technology and efficient institutions.
Inaugural speech by the Prime Minister
The Press Information Bureau (PIB) has released full text of the PM’s inaugural speech at the conference. It referred to the rich Indian history and culture of being one with nature and called for discussions keeping in mind a long-term vision based on which law and policies can be developed. These opening lines, however, did not specify the contours of what that vision could be or the principles that can drive it, especially from an environmental point of view.
The speech also referred to the colonial history of the country, which still influences the confidence of the people to “deal” with the world. The Prime Minister held that as a country, we are not able to assert our position on issues of environment or climate change as we are conscious of the response we might get, that it may be made fun of. Instead, India should have taken a leadership role in the international climate debate.
Interestingly,a large part of Prime Minister Modi’s speech emphasised the rich Indian culture of protecting and living in harmony with nature and that the answer to protecting the environment lies in changing our individual lifestyles. Notwithstanding the importance of individual action, the speech did not refer to the key drivers, which drive and inform the consumerist lifestyles, in turn adding pressure on the environment.
Why is it that people are increasingly leading such consumerist lifestyles? What does it really mean to sustain industrial and energy demand in the country? For the manufacturing, infrastructure and service sectors(including the “Make in India” programme) to survive,there needs to be a set of consumers ready to receive the goods and services which the industry would continue to produce.
While the PM did refer to public participation in land acquisition and use of forest land, there is absolutely no reference to the pressure on the environment created by the large scale changes in land use caused by the government’s thrust on creating a better business environment in the country.
When rivers routinely make way for hydropower projects and inter-tidal areas are converted to Special Economic Zones (SEZs), forests into mines and urban wetlands into shopping malls, it is the environment which loses out. This loss cannot be circumvented by technological innovations for pollution control, which the PM refers to as a key environment protection measure. The only concrete pollution control measure that the speech offers is for the 6000 villages and 118 cities along the river Ganga that have been impacted by industrial pollution.
The sectors under which resolutions were passed at the conference include waste management, forests, forest clearances, wildlife and Ecologically Sensitive Zones, environmental approvals, biodiversity and climate change. These were individually detailed while some others were clubbed together.
The section on waste entirely emphasises its management, with absolutely no reference to measures to reduce waste of any kind. For instance, the resolutions talk about the need for establishing segregation of waste at source and door-to-door collection of waste and plastics management. In the industrial context, recommendations pertain to the establishment of common effluent treatment plants or disposal facilities for both hazardous and non-hazardous waste. The final resolution was to set up a web-based platform that would integrate various approvals required for waste management.
What is also missing from the agenda for the sector is a focus on ensuring that all these waste management techniques actually function. There are examples of overloaded and non-functional effluent treatment plants in heavily polluted sections of the country. Moreover, how many landfills or dump sites, (which are not devoid of their own impacts) will one create if the generation of waste is not curtailed?
In the section on forests, the first resolution is to adhere to the timelines prescribed for processing online applications for diverted forest land for non forest use, a procedure known as “forest clearance” both in popular parlance and established administrative terminology. This entails clearing the “backlog” of proposals of all kinds including those for mines, roads, ports, industries, railways and so on. Many of these projects will be ready to roll out construction activity, once approvals are in place and financing is secured.
Another resolution talks about a comprehensive amendment to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 but does not specify what this would encompass. A huge emphasis here is on compensatory afforestation and utilisation of funds generated from Net Present Value (NPV) funds, both of which are procedures that come into play when forests are diverted or felling of trees approved.
The above also looks at expediting the declaration of Ecologically Sensitive Zone (ESZs). Several resolutions towards setting up committees and institutions to either prepare Tiger Conservation Plans or to implement the controversial Green India Mission (GIM) were also looked at.
Improving working conditions of the forest departments, which has been one of the oldest demands of forest conservation groups and the department itself, was reiterated just as there was a push for preparation of databases related to forests.
In the section on environment and“environment clearance” procedures, the resolutions talk about rationalising violations and including civil penalties, databases for compliance reports and online submission of applications, and issuing Terms of References (ToRs) for the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process.
Interestingly, the resolutions talk about the adoption of categorisation of industries into red, orange and green, and constitution of a committee for the same. This practice has been in existence while notifying Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA) using Section 3 (2)(v) of the Environment Protection Act, 1986. Rolling out a fresh categorisation without looking into the reasons behind the ineffectiveness of the earlier practice will make this entire exercise futile.
The recommendations also selectively use the categorisation not for sitting or regulation of industries but primarily to ascertain the period for which ‘consent to operate’ under the pollution control laws are to be issued. If you are a red industry, it would be a much shorter consent as compared to orange or green, and hence would need renewal periodically.
The section on biodiversity focuses largely on the implementation of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 and includes notification of state level rules pending for over a decade. It also talks about finalising a list of threatened species and declaring Biodiversity Heritage Sites (BHS) in each state of the country in 2015-16.
The implementation of the Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) guidelines was also emphasised. These guidelines focus primarily on payment of fees and royalties for seeking access to biological material and people’s knowledge for research, commercial utilisation or intellectual property. They do very little to ensure that fair and equitable benefit sharing is established once access is approved
The final implications
The resolutions taken at the conference re-establish that the environment ministry would continue to focus on expediting processing of applications for forest and environment clearances. There is a no acknowledgement that there is a need to reduce the pressures on environment and livelihoods that are being caused by industrial and infrastructural expansion in the country.
While there is no stopping this trend, there are no concrete efforts towards strengthening regulatory mechanisms. Management measures are to be introduced only post-facto, with damage to the environment being taken as a given. The big question on compliance with management measures and safeguards also remains unaddressed.
Thus, there can be no illusion of environment protection being the primary agenda of the ministry. We have to make do with a broadly-defined vision of development, with inevitable environmental destruction as an accepted offshoot that is only to be managed, if at all.
Kohli, K., M. Menon, V. Samdariya, and S.Guptabhaya. 2011. Pocketful of Forests: Legal debates on valuating and compensating forest loss in India.Kalpavriksh& WWF-India, New Delhi
Kohli, K. And Menon, M. 2011. Banking on Forests: Assets for a Climate Cure?.Kalpavriksh and Heinrich Boll Foundation
Kapoor, M., K. Kohli.and M. Menon. 2009. India’s Notified Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs): Story so far. Kalpavriksh, Delhi & WWF-India, New Delhi
Kohli, K. and Bhutani, S. 2013.THE ‘BALANCING’ ACT: Experiences with Access and Benefit Sharing under India’s Biodiversity Regime.Kalpavriksh and Swissaid, India