Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

EN­VI­RON­MEN­TAL­ISTS ARE RIGHTLY alarmed that the nda gov­ern­ment is busy dis­man­tling the en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tory sys­tem in the coun­try. Over the past two months, the me­dia has re­ported that clear­ances for projects, from min­ing to roads, have been fast-tracked. While the web­site of the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment and Forests (moef ) has not been up­dated in Au­gust, in the two months till July end, for­est clear­ance was granted to over 92 projects, which will di­vert some 1,600 hectares of for­est. More re­cently, it was re­ported that the Na­tional Board for Wildlife has pro­cessed many projects lo­cated near or in sanc­tu­ar­ies and na­tional parks.

Ad­di­tion­ally, rules are be­ing changed, pur­port­edly to speed up the process. This is be­ing done in mainly two ways. One, as much as pos­si­ble, moef is push­ing decision-mak­ing to the states in the name of stream­lin­ing the process. The En­vi­ron­men­tal Im­pact As­sess­ment (eia) no­ti­fi­ca­tion has been amended to del­e­gate pow­ers to clear cer­tain projects to the state-level eia au­thor­i­ties. This is be­ing done with the full knowl­edge that the state agen­cies lack ca­pac­ity and ac­count­abil­ity. So, the ef­fort is not to take in­formed de­ci­sions about ad­verse im­pacts of projects. The ef­fort is to get rid of the clear­ance sys­tem or at least to push it as far away as pos­si­ble.

Two, wher­ever pos­si­ble the pro­vi­sion of hold­ing pub­lic hear­ings or tak­ing gram sab­has’ con­sent is be­ing di­luted or even re­moved.For ex­am­ple, small coal mines— clas­si­fied as pro­duc­ing 8 mil­lion tonnes an­nu­ally—have been al­lowed to dou­ble their ca­pac­ity with­out hold­ing the manda­tory pub­lic hear­ing. Other changes are also in the off­ing that will fur­ther chip away at this con­di­tion, which makes it nec­es­sary to get the con­sent of the af­fected com­mu­ni­ties or at least to hear and heed their con­cerns. Clearly, lis­ten­ing to peo­ple is not con­ve­nient for in­dus­try.

This said, it is im­por­tant to note that the en­vi­ron­ment was not safe­guarded dur­ing the pre­vi­ous upa gov­ern­ment as well. Very few (less than 3 per cent) projects were re­jected be­cause of en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns; at the most sanc­tion was de­layed.The sys­tem was de­signed to ob­struct and pre­var­i­cate, not to scru­ti­nise and as­sess en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age. The rules were made so con­vo­luted that they be­came mean­ing­less. The process was so com­plex that the same project had to be cleared by five to seven agen­cies, which had no in­ter­est in com­pli­ance of the con­di­tions they would set.

In some ways nda is do­ing what the upa did but with­out any pre­tence.The last gov­ern­ment killed the en­vi­ron­men­tal clear­ance sys­tem by mak­ing it so con­vo­luted that it stopped func­tion­ing.It was not in­ter­ested in re­form or strength­en­ing the ca­pac­ity of its reg­u­la­tory agen­cies. The pol­lu­tion con­trol boards re­main un­der­staffed and grossly ne­glected.The last gov­ern­ment was cer­tainly not in­ter­ested in mon­i­tor­ing the per­for­mance of the project to en­sure that en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age was mit­i­gated. There is no ca­pac­ity to as­sess com­pli­ance and the laws to en­force com­pli­ance are weak. It is a sad re­al­ity that pre­vi­ous min­is­ters re­fused to re­form the sys­tem be­cause it was eas­ier to con­trol, thus, per­pet­u­ate power.

This, then, is the real test for the cur­rent nda gov­ern­ment. The need for reg­u­la­tory over­sight can­not be ques­tioned. The en­vi­ron­men­tal clear­ance sys­tem is a pre­req­ui­site for ef­fi­cient and sus­tain­able man­age­ment of nat­u­ral re­sources and, more im­por­tantly, for en­sur­ing that ad­verse im­pacts of eco­nomic growth are mit­i­gated and man­aged. Be­sides, an ef­fec­tive sys­tem helps in­dus­try to man­age fu­ture risks of its in­vest­ment.It can­not be done away with.

What the nda gov­ern­ment is do­ing now with the changes it is bring­ing, is to con­tinue to dis­tort and dis­mem­ber the sys­tem, mak­ing it even more far­ci­cal and in­ef­fec­tive and, con­se­quently, more cor­rupt.The ques­tion is will this change?

Will new min­is­ter Prakash Javadekar keep per­pet­u­at­ing a bad sys­tem or make a real dif­fer­ence for real change?

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