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Dismantling environmental laws, endangering India

February 16, 2015 14:09 IST

India loses 333 acres of prime forest every day.

Instead of working to conserve India's forests and water resources, the environment minister has set up a committee to 'dismantle' the five key laws that provide environmental protection, says Rashme Sehgal, reporting for Rediff.com

After China, India has the worst environmental track record in the world harbouring some of the most polluted cities.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation rated Delhi as the most polluted city overtaking Beijing with its poor quality air index.

India also has the dirtiest rivers. It is losing 333 acres of prime forest every day, a fact that should worry all of us. Researchers have repeatedly pointed out that India is losing its forests more rapidly than Brazil and Malaysia.

Instead of working to conserve India's forests and water resources, Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadeka anointed a committee in 2014 headed by former Cabinet secretary T S R Subramanian to 'dismantle' the five key laws that provide environmental protection to the country.

The five laws that are being reviewed are 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.

Senior sources within the ministry of environment, however, insist that the Indian Forests Act 1927 is also under review.

As a fig leaf, the ministry held a series of public hearings across five cities, but environmental groups and activists working in this field complained that they had not received any prior intimation of this exercise.

One such meeting was held in Bengaluru where several public interest groups and environmentalists led by environmental activist Leo F Saldanha of the Environment Support Group questioned the legitimacy of a group of retired civil servants, a former judge and a senior advocate undertaking such a massive review operation.

Obviously, his criticism did not go down well with members of the committee.

Speaking about the entire dismantling process, green lawyer Ritwick Datta, managing trustee, Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, and one of the few activists who was given a chance to place his comments before the Subramanian Committee warned that undermining environmental laws would be disastrous for the people as also for economic development.

"Contrary to what is being projected by industry, environmental laws have not slowed down the economy rather speedy approvals are primarily responsible for large-scale devastation," says Datta.

"India's environmental laws are a result of people's struggles, international conventions and judicial pronouncements. The principle of non-regression also applies to them," adds Datta, pointing out that norms which have already been adopted by nations cannot be revised in ways which are detrimental to its public.

"Environmental rights and environment protection are closely linked to human rights including cultural and social rights and this principle is being increasingly invoked in the context of environmental protection," Datta declares.

Manoj Misra of the Yamuna Jal Abhiyan notes, "The YJA has been in the forefront in saving rivers, forests and our fast disappearing wildlife, but our views were not taken into account. The government seems to forget that extreme weather events are upon us. We witnessed this in Uttarakhand in 2013 and while most parts of northwest India received less than 50 per cent of normal rainfall, Jammu and Kashmir witnessed its worst floods in several decades."

Complaints by other activist groups have also fallen on deaf ears. The Subramanian Committee went ahead with its reform agenda, recommending the enactment of the Environmental Laws (Management) Act, ELMA, to oversee the multiplicity of agencies which oversee all environmental and forest clearances.

Simultaneously, they want to see the creation of a National Environment Management Authority, NEMA, with its counterpart in each state to be called the State Environmental Management Authority, SEMA.

A scene from the Tadoba National Park in Maharashtra. Photograph: Sonil Dedhia/Rediff.comOn wildlife the Subramanian Committee has proposed 'no-go' areas which have a 70 per cent tree canopy. The Forest Survey of India defines forests as those which have 40 per cent tree cover. The committee's definition applies to a very small proportion of national parks, sanctuaries and tiger reserves.

The committee has also recommended that the Central Pollution Control Board and all state agencies be subsumed as also the Environmental Pollution Control Authority and the Water Act of 1974. Their objective to do away with cumbersome procedures in the environmental process is valid, but the ministry admits that 99 per cent of all applications get cleared anyway.

The result is there for all to see. Already, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has decided to amend the Maharashtra Factories Rules of 1963 whereby it will be possible to register and receive a license for a factory within three days.

Shockingly, if the state government has reservations on such an application, the application form itself can be treated as a license.

This move has the support of Union Minister of Environment Javadekar who has also given 'in principle' clearance to the setting up of a coastal highway and also decided to withdraw the ban on sand mining on the sensitive Konkan coast.

In fact, Javadekar went to the extent of saying, 'We can overcome the Coastal Regulatory Zone hurdles.'

The problem is compounded by the fact that all ministers and ministries are taking their cue directly from Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has projected himself as a climate change sceptic and his government is giving an aggressive thrust to expanding coal mining and thermal power.

He is also known to be determined to give a push to increasing amounts of industrialisation and infrastructure development including polluting industries which will be at the expense of forests and wet lands.

This will only further undermine attempts to curb pollution levels. India is presently the second most polluting country after China and India's emissions are estimated to rise by 60 per cent between 2020 and 2040.

Ashok Khosla of Development Alternatives, an NGO, played a key role in setting up the environmental apparatus in the country. He was teaching at Harvard University when then prime minister Indira Gandhi invited him to return to India and help write laws that would protect its rich and diverse biodiversity.

"I am worried about what is going on," says Khosla. "The government goes from one extreme to the other. It's like a pendulum. We have now moved to the other extreme and seem to be dismantling the laws we had put in place, forgetting that if this happens, with extreme climate events on the rise, we will be in more serious trouble."

"If we don't care for our soil, water, forests, then poverty will only accelerate in this country," adds Khosla. "They will soon know that they are on a suicidal path."

Minister Javadekar denies any such process is under way. "Don't go by what is being written on this process," he says. "Go by what I am telling you. We are not dismantling laws, rather these laws are being changed for the better."

"Environment laws are often in conflict with the law. We want this to end," says the minister. "That is what explains the constitution of the committee. We wanted people who were familiar with the law to be given membership. Judges and advocates understand the judicial process and so are better suited to act as an interface between the ministry and the judiciary."

Environmentalists express concern about the hurried nature of this exercise in which local communities, dependent on these forests, are not being consulted. It is for this reason that this report has been perceived as a 'comprehensively democracy deficit' effort.

If these laws are adopted, it could result in irreversible damage to the environment, cause widespread loss of natural ecosystems and fuel more discontent amongst India's poor.

Image: A tiger relaxes in the Tadoba National Park in Maharashtra. Photograph: Sonil Dedhia/Rediff.com

Rashme Sehgal, for Rediff.com in New Delhi