The Environmental Impact Assessment notification passed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) on 14 September 2006 has been a major issue of contention between the government and many environmental groups including various members of "Campaign for Environmental Justice in India." These groups have declared this notification and its formulation process as being both iniquitous and exclusionary. While the government has justified this notification as streamlining of the environmental clearance process for industrial projects, the NGOs have maintained that the current notification curtails peoples' right to participatory environmental decision-making.
The EIA process has also raised concerns about preferential treatment given to industrial lobby over public interest groups. The Minister of Environment and Forests, A. Raja, admitted that he signed this notification under the influence of more powerful colleagues from the Ministry of Finance and the Planning Commission (Indian Express, 2006) - effectively reducing the credibility of his Ministry to protect people and environment. The allegations by the NGOs, notwithstanding MoEF's defensive justifications, point to a fundamental question that remains - namely, why is India so hesitant to apply the core principles of democracy in its environment regulatory processes, although it is touted as being the largest democracy in the world?
History of state control
One part of the answer can be found in institutional processes set centuries ago. Prior to British rule in India, although most natural resources were nominally under the control of Indian monarchs, local people enjoyed their customary rights to access and utilize these resources for their daily subsistence. As discussed by Gadgil and Guha (1996), a culture of participatory decision -making (through panchayats etc.) and judicious use of natural resources formed the basis of common resource use and conservation strategies, particularly in rural areas. This social fabric was slowly broken when India came under British rule. The British brought with them concepts of commodification and State control of natural resources, which were until then alien to India. The first legal attempt at asserting state control of resources was through the Indian Forest Act of 1865. In 1899, Baden-Powell, a senior civil servant in the British Government, claimed without any proof that "the right of the State to dispose of or retain for public use the waste or forest area is among the most ancient and undisputed features of oriental Sovereignty" (Baden-Powell, 1889) - thereby justifying the British control of these resources and alienating the local community from the decision-making processes and the overall developmental process in India.
But it would be too simplistic to blame all the problems associated with the current development path on our former colonial masters. Gadgil and Guha (1996) note that the Government of India, at the time of Independence, had two distinct alternatives for the reconstruction of post-independent Indian economy and society. One vision was associated with Mahatma Gandhi and the "Gram Swaraj" - a decentralized economic order, wherein the key unit of production was at the village level, oriented towards the fulfillment of basic human needs and the utilization of indigenous knowledge and resources. The other claimed that India's revitalization and growth would only be ensured by an emulation of the West through modern science and large-scale industrial development. It is obvious now as to which vision for India's development prevailed. While nominally democratic, this continued an unwelcome British practice of a small group of people in power deciding the course of the whole nation's future development - and once again the masses had no say on this issue.
Contrast this with the American experience; like India the United States too had two alternatives in terms of the country's economic future immediately after independence. Alexander Hamilton, one of the nation's Founding Fathers and its first Secretary of the Treasury, believed that the United States should pursue economic growth through diversified shipping, manufacturing, and banking. However, Thomas Jefferson, his political rival, based his philosophy on protecting the common man from political and economic tyranny. He particularly praised small farmers as "the most valuable citizens" of the new nation. There was significant public debate on this distinction and related issues. In 1801, Jefferson became president (1801-1809) and he promoted a more decentralised, agrarian democracy. Only much later did the United States adopt large-scale industrialisation.
Environmental planning in India
Continued exploitation of natural resources for increasing economic growth brought with it associated environmental and social problems. However, these problems were not addressed by the government until 1971, when the Planning Commission wrote a report on the state of India's environment in preparation for a 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. It was only after India signed the resulting declaration from this U.N. conference did the government take any serious action addressing environmental issues in developmental planning. Subsequently, a National Committee on Environmental Planning and Coordination (NCEPC) was formed in 1972 to act as an apex advisory body in all the matters relating to environmental protection and improvement. The Fifth Five year plan (1974-79) stated that the NCEPC should be involved in all major industrial decisions, so that development can be balanced with environmental management (Divan, 2001).
Also, the 1970 U.S. National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) did not give the federal government complete jurisdiction over environmental polices. It applied only to the federal government actions, and did not extend to the states. In fact, by 1979, eighteen different states in the U.S. had enacted their own state EPA's - although these acts were modeled on the federal act, they varied according to their local conditions (Ortolano, 1997). In India, on the other hand, the central government has claimed sole jurisdiction over environmental matter based on the fact that environmental rules were derived from international obligations, as India was a signatory to the 1972 U.N. declaration. The 1976 42nd amendment to the Indian Constitution moved the subjects of "forests" and "protection of wild animals and birds" from the State List to the Concurrent List. It was under these legal bases that the Air Act of 1981 and the Environment Protection Act of 1986 were enacted with no public debate or state role.
Thus, India has followed a very centralized approach on environmental governance, with the states and local agencies having very limited roles under the 1986 act, in stark contrast to the United States, the world's other large and populous federal democracy. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has complete control over environmental issues, in essence continuing the tradition of Baden-Powell.
A strong government-industry nexus
While the interested public have no role in environmental decision making in India, industries have significant influence within the government. The nexus between the government and industry dates back to the freedom struggle, with the Congress finding considerable support from industrialists like Birla, Tata and Bajaj. These industrialists within the Congress grew in strength and confidence, as they provided a major source of funding to the Congress (Gadgil and Guha, 1996). Evidence of this relationship is reflected in Nehru's opposition to Liaquat Ali Khan's populist budget of 1946-47, which recommended, among other things, the withdrawal of the salt tax and the imposition of a heavy income tax on industry to ensure a more equitable economic development. Nehru seemed most reluctant to pursue anti-industrialist policies because of their adverse impact on domestic industrialists, who he thought would protect India's economic future. (B. Chakrabarty, 1992).
There are also growing signs of impatience in growth planning, which are putting the nation's already damaged environment at further risk. The Planning Commission's Vision 2020 document in 2002 predicted average annual GDP growth rate of 8.5 to 9 per cent over the next 20 years. The document also projected that such growth will raise India to be the 4th largest country in terms of GDP by 2020 (it currently ranks 11th). Such rapid growth demands a high rate of infrastructure development, which would inevitably result in further environmental degradation. In this race to become a developed nation, India is following a very different path from that taken by the developed world to preserve its environment. Indian courts have promulgated that the scientific and technical progress of the country to achieve the aim of being a powerful and modern industrial state should not be obstructed in name of environment protection (The Hindu 2004). Whereas their counterparts in the U.S. have banned road construction in almost a third of the U.S. forests, prohibiting commercial logging, mining and other development in pristine forest areas, as this measure is necessary to protect the social and ecological values (Earthjustice, 2006).
How will this change?
The history of environmental decision-making in India suggests that the changes required for a just and equitable development will not come about with the mere passage of new laws or notifications in the future. Peoples' participation in decision-making and effective environmental management have so far not been given due importance; on the contrary they has been viewed mainly as impediments to rapid economic growth! Not surprisingly, this history has culminated in the recent alterations of the EIA notification by MoEF, which further alienate the governed from decisins about their environment.
Changing this current paradigm requires an internally driven social movement for environmental protection and justice. Developmental processes must be inclusive, deliberative and participatory. The challenge today for the Indian Government is to choose a path of industrial development that is pro-environment and pro-communities - a development which reflects the dreams and the values of millions of her citizens, rather than just the aspirations of those in power. This requires the active participation of all of us - the rich, the poor, the powerful and the powerless. As Paul Hawkens (1995) notes, "Government, business, and environmental organizations cannot create a sustainable society. It will only come about through the accumulated effects of daily acts of billions of eager participants."