Environment Policy Needed Immediate Rollback

Environment policy has cast a long shadow over the Modi government’s nearly decade-long work. Experts have identified it as the most major and under-reported failure of the present government. The environment has somehow slipped everyone’s radar while opposition attention is focused on concerns like unemployment and the farm crisis

By Ranjit Bhushan
  • Experts estimate that around 33,000 to 43,000 trees would be cut in the construction of the Char-Dham Road project
  • In Jan 2020 passed an ordinance to amend the Coal Mines Act of 2015 to open up the coal sector for commercial mining
  • More than 60% of the forest area in the country falls within 187 tribal districts
  • Lakshadweep is experiencing coastal erosion. experts fear rising sea levels may make certain islands uninhabitable

The several achievements of the nearly-decade-long Modi rule is clouded by one long dark shadow – the government’s environment policy. Experts have been quick to flag it as the most significant as well as the most under-reported failure of the Modi government. While the opposition and the media have, to a significant degree, focussed on issues like unemployment and the farm crisis, the environment has somehow escaped everyone’s radar.

While the preceding 10-year-old UPA regime was not much to write home about as far as environment is concerned, the last decade has set India back significantly.

This drastic fall in India’s ecological standing is best encapsulated in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), an international ranking system that measures the environmental health and sustainability of countries. According to the Environmental Performance Index 2022, India ranked the lowest among 180 countries, after Vietnam (178), Bangladesh (177), and Pakistan (176). With an overall score of 18.9, India is at the bottom of all countries in the 2022 EPI with low scores across a range of critical landmarks.
This rank is steadily going down. In 2019, India was ranked the fourth-worst country (177) in the world out of 180 countries, a steady drop since 2014, when India was ranked 155th, globally.

Clearly, the ability to balance development while safeguarding the environment is the biggest challenge before the Modi government. While the government’s emphasis on ease of doing business is commendable, stakeholders believe that it is coming at the cost of rampant environmental degradation.

Proposed Changes To EIA

Perhaps the most damaging of all decisions are the proposed changes to the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process, which was originally designed to safeguard the country’s diverse ecology. The Environmental Impact Assessment Notification was promulgated by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in 2006 to scrutinize all relevant information about a project or activity in order to assess (and accordingly mitigate) its potential adverse impacts on the ecology of a region. In March 2021, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued a revised draft policy on evaluating the environmental impact of large projects. The draft EIA notification, which is meant to replace the 2006 regulations currently in use, will legally grant industrial, mining and infrastructure projects access to land, water, forests and other environmental resources, or reject them based on environmental viability.

According to the Environmental Performance Index 2022, India ranked lowest among 180 countries, after Vietnam (178), Bangladesh (177), and Pakistan (176). With an overall score of 18.9, India is at the bottom of all countries in the 2022 EPI with low scores across a range of critical landmarks

Among the many changes, the draft proposes a mechanism to legitimize some actions currently listed as violations, such as projects that start construction without a valid clearance. It also expands the list of projects exempted from public consultation, a crucial part of the EIA process.

Currently, the public has 30 days to peruse EIA reports, but the new draft reduces that to 20 days without any justification. “Making these reports available less than three weeks before the public hearing will make it very difficult for people to verify the contents of EIA reports. This is of great consequence since the quality of EIA reports in the country has been poor in the past and the consequences of that have to be felt by the public,” noted the Centre for Policy Research, a distinguished Delhi-based public policy body.

According to it, the changes allow potential violators to get their projects regularized by simply paying a penalty. “The proposed amnesty to be granted to illegal projects, as proposed by the draft notification, negates the very purpose of the EIA, which is to try and ascertain social and environmental risks of a project before it starts functioning,” argues the centre’s report.

Researchers Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli say that the EIA, since its adoption in 1994, has been “a thorn in the flesh” of both corporates and environmentalists. While businesses have seen it as an instrument to hinder access to the country’s natural resources, environmentalists have felt that it legitimizes environmentally degrading projects because the rejection rate has been nearly zero.
“The EIA has become the government’s classic extraction device. It is needed to wrest resources from the collective control of communities and hand them over to project proponents supportive of the government,” the researchers write, adding that the 2020 proposed version tries to do the same and “renovates” the EIA for the worse.

Meanwhile, last year, the MoEFCC notified an amendment to the Environment Impact Assessment Rules, exempting highway projects of strategic and defence importance, which are 100 km from the Line of Control, among other locations, from an environmental clearance before construction.

The EIA is the centrepiece of a flawed environmental policy, but also consider the following:

  • Within a few weeks of the Modi government taking over in 2014, with its promise of encouraging investment, the environment ministry used a bureaucratic shortcoming to lift the ban on setting up of factories in eight ‘critically-polluted’ industrial belts. Environment clearances were eased to allow mid-sized polluting industries to operate within 5-km of eco-sensitive areas, as against the earlier limit of 10 km. Norms for coal tar processing, sand mining, paper pulp industries were also eased.
  • In August 2014, the number of independent members in the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) was reduced from 15 to just three – a mere rubber stamp to say ‘yes’ to what the government wanted. Result? By 2019, the NBWL approved just under 100% of all industrial projects, which were given environmental clearance. A total of 682 projects were allowed from the 687 projects it had to examine. In contrast, under UPA-2, only 80 per cent of the projects got clearance – 260 were allowed out of 328 projects.
  • In December 2017, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) wrote to over 400 thermal power units in the country, allowing them to release pollutants in violation of the 2015 limits set by the government, which were to be followed till another five years. It also wanted newer thermal power plants to follow the new norms of clean technologies set by the government. No surprise then that by 2018, 15 of the world’s most polluted cities were in India.
Development versus Environment

Yet, the most devastating is the story of development and growth in the Himalayas, which is already extracting a very high price. In 2016, just before the Uttarakhand assembly election, Prime Minister Modi announced the Char Dham Yatra route, estimated to cost about Rs 12,000 crore. The 1,607 km-long Char-Dham Road project is a prestigious two-lane expressway scheme being executed in the Himalayan state. The project proposes widening of roads up to 10 meters to improve the accessibility to Char-Dham (shrines); Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath. A significant portion of the project area falls under the dry deciduous biome along the dry slopes of the rivers. Ruthless harvesting or uprooting of vegetation in the widening of roads can prove to be perilous for the biodiversity and regional ecology.
The construction of this Yatra route has been in the news due to the neglect of environmental rules and the indiscriminate cutting of forests. Experts estimate forest loss to be among the major impacts of the project — about 508.66 hectares of forest area would be diverted to non-forestry work and 33,000-43,000 trees would be cut down to construct roads.

This quest for modernization is going to turn this once old-world spiritual oasis into a modern, glitzy holiday destination, which can have devastating consequences. Says environmentalist Mohan Joshi: “If the yatra goes on slowly, (as it once did) then travellers will stay and spend more time in these areas, i.e., local shopkeepers, dhaba owners, tea vendors, traders and goods-carrying people and many others will benefit. In contrast, helicopters, drones and the highway benefit only select companies and travel agents, as tourists start from Dehradun in the morning and head back at night.”

Under the new provisions, Modi launched the auction of 41 coal blocks, many of which are located in dense forests in Central India. Challenging this decision, the Jharkhand government has approached the Supreme Court to halt the auction. The Chhattisgarh government, too, has raised the red flag over blocks being located in biodiversity-rich forests spanning across an elephant reserve

Likewise, laws have been changed systematically across the states and at the Centre. In Madhya Pradesh, the proposed Ken-Betwa River linking project threatens to destroy more than 4,000 hectares of the Panna tiger reserve, home to critically endangered Gharial species. In Maharashtra, 53,000 precious mangrove trees will be cut for the famous bullet train project.

In Chhattisgarh, one of the most pristine and dense forests of India face elimination if the government permits coal mining. In March 2022, the Chhattisgarh government granted expansion approval for the project to open the Parsa Coal Block. Here, about 2 lakh trees have been marked for felling. The mines will expand into Fattepur and Ghatbarra.

While June 5 is celebrated as the World Environment Day with much fanfare, the Union Environment ministry is set to propose radical change to the country’s environmental law regime, including changes in the important Wildlife Protection Act 1972. According to the Hindustan Times, the move comes amidst concerns among activists and environment groups that the changes are being made to make it easier to develop infrastructure and industrial projects, even in environmentally sensitive areas.

Even as the country witnessed enormous forest fires and 20% forest degradation in the past years, according to the Global Forests Watch, the central government is aiming to dilute the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and limit the role of state governments in forest matters. In March 2022, the Environment Ministry stated, “A state government/UT administration will not impose any additional condition after in-principle approval has been accorded.” The “approval” here relates to construction projects and development initiatives among other key projects to be undertaken by private players on forest lands. The direct impact of this move is likely to be on tribal communities and land rights.

More than 60% of the forest area in the country falls within 187 tribal districts. The modifications to the laws made unilaterally may also pave way for renewed conflicts as they were done without consultations with the local communities.

Loss of Biodiversity

Another reform of far-reaching magnitude is the government’s decision to approve a slew of big-ticket changes in the mining sector, including amendments to the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 (MMDR Act).

The proposed ‘reforms’ in the mining sector have drawn extensive criticism from environmental activists and others for being rushed and pushed through to benefit industries. The ‘reforms’ propose doing away with the distinction between captive and non-captive mines, and re-allocating blocks held by state-owned firms, which means opening the gates for private players via the auction route.

Although the Modi government has publicly advocated for clean power and committed to increasing India’s renewable energy target to 450 gigawatt (GW) as part of a stronger climate action plan, his government, in January 2020 passed an ordinance to amend the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act of 2015 to open up the coal sector for commercial mining to all local and global firms after easing restrictions.

Under the new provisions, Modi launched the auction of 41 coal blocks, many of which are located in dense forests in Central India. Challenging this decision, the Jharkhand government has approached the Supreme Court to halt the auction. The Chhattisgarh government, too, has raised the red flag over blocks being located in biodiversity-rich forests spanning across an elephant reserve.

The case of ‘developing’ the Andamans and Nicobar and the Lakshadweep islands must be considered positively bizarre. Even as the pandemic raged a year ago, NITI Aayog — the public policy think-tank of the Central government— brought in a proposal for the development of India’s southernmost and largest islands–the great Nicobar region. The move has scandalized environmentalists.

On the government agenda is the creation of a mega transshipment terminal, an airport, a township and large-scale development of gas and solar-based power. While the ostensible move – according to the government – will lead to promotion of tourism, resulting in economic development of the region, concerns over the scale and the speed of expansion of the project have come forth since its initial announcement in March 2021.While in Lakshadweep, the government is aiming for extensive changes to the land ownership and regulation in the island, with the administrator taking complete charge over the grant of permission to develop land and for other powers of control over the use of land. Further, “these rules will also confer additional powers to the administrator with respect to the acquisition and development of land for planning”.

Lakshadweep is already suffering from severe coastal erosion, and experts predict that some islands may become uninhabitable due to the rise in the sea level, related to climate change. Various other negative ecological impacts are also predicted by experts, such as coral reefs bleaching, damage to fish habitat and breeding grounds. Wrote Rajeev Suri in the Down to Earth magazine: “Since the BJP came into power in 2014, it has put ‘operation dismantle’ into motion. The BJP scarcely conceals its contempt for the environment, working assiduously to dismantle environment protection, which is considered an impediment to development and a stumbling block in the path of ease of doing business.”
Clearly, there is an immediate need to relook the environment policy and introduce some semblance of order in directives hell bent on uprooting everything that is old, ancient and profound.

Ranjit Bhushan

Ranjit Bhushan is a Delhi-based journalist and author.  In a career spanning more than three decades, he has worked with Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, the Press Trust of India, Associated Press, Financial Chronicle, and DNA.

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