If there are suspicions regarding changes proposed by the environment ministry (MoEF) to the Environment Protection Act, 1986 (EPA), urging greater reliance on civil rather than criminal penalties for polluters, the NDA government has itself to blame. Since assuming power last year, this government has sent mixed signals on its commitment to protect India’s ecological interests.
After the UPA years, during which a contrived confrontation between the goals of protecting the environment and industrial development indiscriminately stymied new ventures, the NDA has appeared to veer too far to the other side, providing clearances with undue haste and seeking to dilute impact assessment criteria. In December last year, for instance, it emerged that the MoEF had reportedly tried to use executive orders to allow district collectors to unilaterally clear diversion of forest land to fast track development projects, in violation of the Forest Rights Act.
Yet though the government must do more to reassure sceptics that it is alive to environmental concerns, reasonable amendments to the country’s environmental laws, such as the changes to the EPA, should not be derailed. The EPA, which was enacted as a direct consequence of the gas leak in Bhopal that killed thousands, empowers the Central government to set standards for the emission of environmental pollutants and on how hazardous material ought to be handled, regulate industrial locations as well as establish safeguards to prevent accidents.
The act allows for any contravention to be punished with imprisonment upto five years, or a fine of Rs 1 lakh, or both. This is in accordance with India’s other environmental laws, which impose draconian penalties, like industry closure, and are inefficient in that they are both economically costly and difficult to enforce.
The T S R Subramanian Committee, which submitted its report in November 2014, looked at what ails India’s environmental legislative framework, and recommended that the Centre disentangle the mess of environmental regulation by bringing a single, umbrella law to subsume the numerous statutes governing this area. The Environmental Laws (Amendment) Bill is a move in this direction. Given that it would amount to a major overhaul in current ecological laws, the prime minister’s office is right to invite comments from the public.
But it must be remembered that research into optimum environmental governance indicates that the stricter the liabilities upon polluters, the more they will be incentivised to avoid them. And, most importantly, effective pollution-control requires regular inspections and sanctions, which act as deterrents and encourage compliance.