Conservation news

India’s pre-election changes to green laws draw criticism

  • In the final year of its tenure, the Indian government is making a dash to revamp the country’s major environmental laws meant to protect forests, coasts and wildlife, and tackle air pollution.
  • Environmentalists say that the hasty changes seem to have been proposed in quick succession to avoid wider and detailed consultations with all concerned stakeholders.
  • They also allege that the proposed changes to existing environmental laws are not focused on protecting and conserving the environment, but aim to ease the growth of industries — a promise made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi just before the 2014 general elections.

With India’s general elections looming large next year, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has proposed sweeping overhauls of environmental laws that govern the country’s forests, fragile coasts, wildlife, and tackle air pollution. Once the proposed changes are finalized they will become the cornerstone for India’s environmental policy for at least the next two decades.

However, environmentalists say the changes seem to have been proposed in quick succession to avoid wider and detailed consultations with all concerned stakeholders, and to speed up the process of finalization.

They also allege that the proposed changes to existing environmental laws are not focused on protecting and conserving the environment, but aim to ease the growth of industries — a promise made by Prime Minister Modi just before the 2014 general elections.

Tinkering with the country’s green laws is not new for the current government. Since coming to power in May 2014, it has implemented a series of changes related to environmental law. However, it has not yet been able to initiate any big-ticket plans. With the general elections now scheduled to take place in the first the half of 2019, the government has hit the gas to implement large-scale changes.

Deforestation in Arunachal Pradesh, India. Image by Saurabhsawantphoto via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Changes to environmental policies

In October 2017, the Indian government finalized the third National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-31) of India.

This action plan, along with three other proposed action plans concerning forests, coasts and air pollution, will together form the core of environmental regulation in the country.

India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) unveiled a set of major changes to the draft National Forest Policy (NFP) 2018 in March this year. Once finalized, the policy will be the overarching document for the management of forests over the next 25 to 30 years. The ministry had sought comments on the draft policy from experts and all stakeholders by April 14, 2018.

According to a senior official in the forest division of the MoEFCC, a range of responses have been received on the draft NFP 2018, including from political parties (mainly the left-wing ones). “The suggestions, views and recommendations are being examined and it will soon be finalised during the next couple of months. We will address all concerns raised,” the official said.

Activists, meanwhile, have criticized the draft, saying the changes proposed are just an opening for the private sector to advance into the forestry sector.

This is not the first attempt at updating the forest policy draft, though. Efforts to change the NFP started soon after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government assumed power in May 2014. One version of the draft NFP was put online in 2016, but the government later backtracked and withdrew it.

“It is not the first time that the environmental laws are being diluted,” said Tushar Dash, a forest rights expert and activist working with tribals and forest dwellers in Odisha. “There has been a consistent endeavour by the government to weaken the green laws in recent years. The draft national forest policy 2018 is nothing but a repackaged form of the changes proposed earlier for opening up the forests for the private sector. Those changes were vociferously opposed, but now the government is again trying for privatisation of forests through the new national forest policy.”

Dash said a major concern for activists like him was that the government was trying to weaken green laws through executive orders.

“We are very much concerned about the successive dilutions that have been carried out, and on the ground level, it is impacting the tribals,” he said. “Not just dilution of laws, the government is also weakening the institutions. For instance, the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) has pointed out that its authority, as the nodal agency for the Forest Rights Act (2006), has been diluted by unilateral policy decisions and enactments proposed by the environment ministry without any consultation with MoTA.”

Besides forests, India’s 7,500-kilometer (4,660-mile) coastline is also staring at a complete makeover, with the government looking to replace the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification 2011. The environment ministry made public the draft CRZ notification 2018 in April this year, giving all interested stakeholders 60 days to submit their suggestions.

The first CRZ notification for India’s coasts was introduced in 1991, and was later updated with the 2011 version. Even at that time, state governments had many objections. Since then, the CRZ Notification 2011 has been amended many times to relax the rules for the industry.

According to environmentalists, the latest draft CRZ Notification 2018 proposes to open up the coastline for the industry, real-estate and tourism sectors, rather than protecting the fragile coast. However, it doesn’t come as a surprise to many, as the changes proposed are crucial to the Modi-led government’s flagship programs, such as the Sagarmala initiative to revamp existing ports and built new ones; and Housing for All, an ambitious project to provide affordable housing for lower-income groups.

Under the Sagarmala program, for example, more than 400 projects related to port modernization, new port development, port connectivity enhancement and port-linked industrialization over the 2015-2035 period have been identified at an estimated cost of 8 trillion rupees ($116 billion).

The draft CRZ and forest policies raise big concerns, including about the privatization of forests and the addition of more polluting industries and ports along the coast, said Nandikesh Sivalingam, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace India. “They are clearly aimed at how more investments can be encouraged,” he said. “They are clearly focused on a kind of development that further alienates vulnerable communities from accessing and governing their own resources.”

India’s 7,500-kilometer (4,660-mile) coastline may see large-scale construction if proposed changes to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification are finalized. Image by KuwarOnline via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Environmentalists closely tracking the changes being made by the government argue that it is not just the extensive changes that are concerning, but also the way the government has been amending rules without public consultation in the name of public interest.

“What is worse is several amendments are being issued in the name of public interest and taking away the opportunity for citizens to engage with these changes that are of the order of exempting particular project types from approvals,” said Kanchi Kohli, a legal research director at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR)-Namati Environmental Justice Programme. “This practice only distances the citizens from their government.”

The case resembles that of the Indian government’s first National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). The proposed national action program to tackle toxic levels of air pollution across most major Indian cities, as well as rural areas, was unveiled in April 2018 after years of hue and cry over the issue. Comments on the proposal, which is in the final stages of preparation, were sought by May 17. Experts say that while the proposal is a good start, it a toothless and directionless plan as it sets no targets for reducing pollution from cities.

Changes in green laws were always on the cards

If Prime Minister Modi’s promises prior to the 2014 general elections are anything to go by, changes to India’s environmental laws were always on the cards. Just before elections in May 2014, Modi had turned the slow pace of green clearances — environmental, forest, wildlife and coastal — into an election issue, saying that such delays were resulting in stalling of crucial infrastructure projects, which in turn was stalling India’s growth.

Modi had promised to radically change the scene if voted into power. After being elected, the National Democratic Alliance government went full throttle to change the green laws. Even the big-ticket changes proposed currently are in some way connected to the efforts that started in the first year of the current government.

For instance, in August 2014, when the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) started efforts to bring changes to environmental regulations, it first considered a list of 60 urgent action points submitted by the Confederation of Indian Industries that was meant to remove hurdles of environment clearances for industry. In the six months that followed, nearly all of those changes were made by the government.

At the same time, the government formed a high-level committee led by former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian to “review and suggest amendments” in the six main environmental laws of the country — Environment (Protection) Act, 1986; Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980; Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972; Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974; Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981; and Indian Forest Act 1927 — and to update them in line with current requirements.

By November 2014, the committee submitted its report recommending dozens of changes to the country’s green laws with a special focus on simplifying the rules and reducing delays in environmental clearances. It also suggested an umbrella environment law. There was intense opposition to the report as it was alleged that the changes was made in a hurry without consultation. Though the committee’s report was never acted upon in full, some of the changes have been made over the years. The report was also rejected by Parliament’s standing committee.

The proposed national plan to tackle air pollution across India has no targets to cut down emissions. Image by Rameshng via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Why the rush?

Sanjay Upadhyay, a senior environmental lawyer at the Supreme Court of India, cautioned against rushing to change the laws. “Make haste slowly,” he said. “We are dealing with the environment which is not a creation of man but a gift to the earth. So any reform which has implications on the environment has to be thought through carefully and not in a hurried fashion. More importantly, the people who understand the sector on the ground need to be involved.”

In 2014, when the NDA government constituted the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) without the required number of NGO representatives and eminent ecologists as its members, Upadhyay challenged it at the Supreme Court. He won the case and forced the government to reconstitute the NBWL with the required number of experts.

The government’s haste in revising environmental rules has already faced several cases in the National Green Tribunal, which is in charge of the speedy redress of environmental cases. In some cases, the government had to go back to the drawing board. But whether the government’s last-ditch efforts in the election year will be successful or end up in courts remains to be seen.

A tiger in Ranthambore National Park, India. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

This story was first published on July 13, 2018, by Mongabay-India.