Saturday, June 11, 2016

Choosing Speed over Diligence

Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, is a man in a hurry. He is fond of boasting about his ministry’s achievements. In the two years that he has headed this important ministry, it is the speed with which projects have been cleared that Javadekar claims as his principal achievement. He was recently reported saying that his ministry had cleared over 2,000 projects in two years, including 349 mining proposals. He said that the waiting period for a project to be cleared had been reduced from 600 days to 190 days and that he aimed to reduce this further to 100 days. Calling this a “revolution,” he went on to boast that this would result in the creation of millions of jobs and spur India’s economic growth.
Apart from the fact that many of such claims made by the Modi government after two years in office have been shown to be short on credible facts and high on bombast, Javadekar’s boasts are reason for alarm, not applause. Either he has forgotten, or has chosen to forget, that the idea behind environmental clearances was to protect the environment, not make way for its destruction. Even under existing rules, most environmental clearances are suspect. They rely on data provided by project proponents, there are direct conflicts of interest, the prerequisite public hearing is often stage-managed, and the process is opaque. This was one of the important observations of the Supreme Court-appointed expert committee on hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand after the June 2013 devastating floods. The committee emphasised that hydro projects in ecologically-fragile areas like the Himalayas could not be viewed individually; they had to be assessed in terms of their cumulative impact on the region. It also noted that the environmental impact assessments (EIAs) of the hydro projects it had reviewed, were unreliable and that many of them had been done on the basis of false information provided by project proponents. It urged that future EIAs ought to be done by an independent agency.
There are other instances of existing environmental norms being diluted. For instance, under Javadekar’s watch, the norm for setting up a mining or an industry project near a protected area or a forested area has been changed—from a distance of 10 km to 5 km. The moratorium on new industries in critically-polluted industrial areas such as Ghaziabad, Indore, Ludhiana, Panipat, Patancheru, Singrauli, Vapi and two other locations has been lifted. The loosening of central controls is evident in the decision to allow state governments to clear projects occupying less than 10,000 hectares without an EIA. Also, mandatory public hearings for establishment of private coal mines with a capacity less than 16 million tonnes per annum have been set aside. These are just a few of several such decisions that suggest that the ministry is anxious to ease environmental clearances rather than make them more rigorous.
The latest information indicating the ministry’s policy direction are the new rules issued regarding wetlands—the Draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2016. These will supersede the existing 2010 rules once approved. The 2010 rules were formulated after extensive consultations with experts and environmental groups. They acknowledged the importance of preserving wetlands which cover only 4.7% of India’s land area but play a crucial role in moderating the impact of floods and cyclones, in storing and purifying water and in recharging groundwater. The wetlands are also repositories of precious and endangered biodiversity and act as carbon sinks. The 2010 rules laid down specific prohibitions on the use of wetlands to ensure that these fragile ecospheres are not further endangered. The new draft rules have no prohibitions, only criteria for what is permitted. Further, the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority will be dismantled and instead states will be free to independently decide how projects near wetlands are to be established. The specious argument forwarded by the ministry is that since land and water are state subjects, wetlands ought to come under the jurisdiction of state governments. But wetlands are not just land and water; these include forests and endangered fauna and much more. By removing central control, the government is literally allowing state governments to do as they wish with wetlands. We have seen the consequences of such a policy. In the 2015 floods in Chennai and Srinagar, wetlands that had been filled up failed to act as buffers.
The ministry under Javadekar has also tried to dilute the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 or the Forest Rights Act (FRA) by arguing that gram sabhas should not have the right to veto important mining projects in forested land. So far it has not succeeded in doing this. Nor has its attempt to trim the powers of the National Green Tribunal been successful. But its record so far, and its choice of speed over diligence in clearing projects, indicates the future direction of environmental policy under this government, one that spells doom for India’s fragile environmental resources.

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