Representational image. | Image Courtesy: Financial Tribune
In the last five years, the BJP led NDA government set into motion changes to environment laws that would expedite approvals and facilitate ease of doing business. Now that the new cabinet is sworn in, there seems to be no end to the ongoing onslaught and the attempts to weaken the environment policy. The new government already has some major policy decisions on the table waiting for approval. These changes, some of which were proposed in the last 100 days, are related to the amendments in the Indian Forest Act, 1927, an overhaul of the Environment Impact Assessment notification 2006 and the new National Forest Policy.
With the announcement of portfolios, Prakash Javadekar has retained the environment ministry. Speaking to NewsClick about what one can expect in terms of environment from ‘Modi 2.0’, environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta said, “one can expect the continuity in terms of the ongoing policy, the portfolio has not even been changed, what we do expect is for the government to reverse the trend in terms of its ongoing dilution of environmental laws and the weakening of environmental policy.”
However, with the proposed plans of the Modi government, a reversal looks unlikely. In a bid before the elections of 2019, the Modi government went on to carry a series of changes in India’s environmental laws to simplify them and make it easier for the industry to get green clearances – a promise made by Narendra Modi before he became the Prime Minister in 2014. The new BJP manifesto for 2019 elections provides no respite from this ongoing assault. Under the forest and environment section, it boasts of ‘speed and effectiveness in issuing forest and environmental clearances’.
Also read: Changes to Indian Forests Act: How Modi is Trying to Subvert FRA
The NDA government is now gearing up to bring changes to Indian Forests Act (1927). After having failed to defend the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Forests, Environment and Climate Change (MoEFC) under the Narendra Modi government has now introduced a draconian draft amendment to the colonial era, Indian Forests Act. Documents accessed by NewsClick showed that a letter to the states to give suggestions was sent out by the respective ministries on March 7, 2019. However, the proposed changes have not been put forth in the public domain. The consultations by the states are said to have completed by June 7. The draft of the law proposes to restore higher management powers and also to provide veto powers to the forest bureaucracy. This essentially makes the denial of rights to tribals and traditional forest dwellers convenient for forest officials, even if they are recognised under the FRA. It is important to note, in February this year, the claims of nearly 11,27,446 tribal and other forest-dwelling households were rejected on various grounds by the Supreme Court after the respective ministries failed to defend the FRA and did not even turn up for the court hearings.
The central government has proposed to overhaul the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2006 which governs the environment clearance process for industries. The proposed changes recommend the local urban bodies or municipalities to give clearance to building and construction projects. The zero draft notification also seeks the creation of a district level authority to consider the environment clearance rules related to the mining of minor minerals. Environmentalists have argued that instead of strengthening the implementation of the existing EIA notification, the changes would in fact weaken it and leave loopholes to help the industrial projects.
Dutta adds, “all these attempts are oriented towards exempting a major part of the real estate industry from the EIA and lower the powers of the Gram Sabhas and undermine the Forests Rights Act.” Besides this, the central government has also been looking at updating the national forest policy, the draft of which has already been made public but is yet to be finalised. The draft of the forest policy had also come under criticism for encouraging the participation of the private sector for undertaking afforestation and reforestation activities in degraded forest areas.
Also read : Commercialisation of the Coast: Modi Government Overhauls Coastal Regulation Zone
The Modi government is also churning wheels to privatise the coastline aimed at benefiting the corporates. It has approved an overhaul of the Coastal Zone Regulation (CRZ) rules. The protection and development of the coast was till now governed by the CRZ Notification (2011) which defines what areas fall under the CRZ and what activities are permitted there.
The new rules will allow “public utilities” like sewage treatment plants, link roads, coastal roads, and ecotourism projects in CRZ 1 or the most protected and the regulated zones. The government is trying its best to brand the move as one that will lead to significant employment generation and rejuvenate the coastal areas while reducing their vulnerabilities.
Fishermen, activists and environment experts on the ground suggest otherwise. Many on the ground believe that the move is set to promote commercialisation in the most protected zones which can have disastrous consequences for the communities living on the coastline and also the environment. Speaking to NewsClick, Kanchi Kohli from the Center of Policy Research said, “since 2014, this was outlined in the pre election manifestos and subsequent achievement documents. What we have seen is projects or their expansions approved despite officially recorded illegalities; exemptions related to prior consent and public participation clauses in existing laws. The environment ministry has also put into place systems which allow defaulters of environment laws to approach the government for post facto approvals. It is business and not environment that was foregrounded in the last five years.”
The biggest statistical evidence for this lies in the Environmental Performance Index, where India was ranked the fourth-worst country (177) in the world out of 180 countries in 2018. Five years ago, India was ranked 155th.
Kohli added, ‘in its second term one would expect the government to reverse this trend and uphold the precautionary principle for environment protection. In doing this by upholding public spiritedness and participatory decision making. Environment is as much about trees and birds as it is about the health, livelihood and well being of the constituency that supports business and votes in a government.” Dutta added, “this government needs to remember that we are also signatories to the Paris agreement and they must act swiftly towards the issues of carbon intensity and deforestation. Even if the government cannot strengthen the environment laws, it should at least not weaken them.”