The past fortnight has seen two notable events: the high intensity campaign mounted by The Indian Express, highlighting the alarming air pollution levels in Indian cities; and the consultation by the ministry of environment with state governments on the recommendations of the high-level committee (HLC) for the review of existing environmental laws. The former has already elicited a strong response from the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in the banning of 10-year-old diesel vehicles (though the abrupt enforcement methods could be questioned). Major reforms in environmental management are now an imperative; one hopes that the ministry will move forward in a balanced manner.
The HLC had, inter alia, found that the “acts and the appurtenant legal instruments have really served only the purpose of a venal administration at the Centre and the states, to meet rent-seeking propensity at all levels”, and that “the state — arbitrary, opaque, suspiciously tardy or in express mode at different times, along with insensitivity — has failed to perform, inviting [the] intervention of the judiciary.” The HLC’s recommendations focus on transparency in management, technology-aided accountable decision-making, effective monitoring, capacity-building, elimination of ambiguity and reduction in litigation. The focus is not just on preserving the environment but on sharply improving it while concurrently providing for balanced decision-making in project clearance.
There is a need for major improvement in the management of forests. While superficially the area under forest cover has been stable for the past few years, the real concern relates to deterioration in forest quality, with worrisome and significant declines in density across the board. The HLC found little recognition of this frightening trend and has suggested a number of measures for addressing this.
The management of pollution (air and water) has evolved over recent decades in a haphazard and ad hoc manner. The approval processes are controlled through politically dominated institutions at the state level; monitoring is nearly non-existent. While violation of approved conditions is the norm and rampant, enforcement of the laws (weak as they are) is abysmally poor — the HLC found no unit shut down for violation of conditions in the past 10 years. There is no provision for punitive action against offenders. Air pollution is reaching alarming levels in many parts of the country; nearly irreversible damage to our main and subsidiary rivers is readily visible. There is an urgent need to bring rationality to the management of pollution through a multi-pronged action programme under an effective policy framework.
A concept of “utmost good faith” has been suggested through a proposed new legislation to ensure that the applicant for project clearance is responsible legally for his commitments. He would be liable to severe penalisation for any deliberate falsehood, misrepresentation or suppression of facts, which may include summary closure of the unit, cancellation of the licence and may also lead to imprisonment. This proposed provision will cast major responsibility on the project proponent while concurrently significantly reducing “inspector raj”. It should be added that this proposal has been widely criticised as being naive and too trusting of the Indian entrepreneur. Such uninformed criticism, often from motivated sources, does not take into account the new weapon available to the regulator to dangle a Damocles’s sword on the project proponent, forcing him to declare a priori his technology, mitigation plans and ensuring that he sticks to his commitments — a powerful weapon indeed in the fight to manage the environment.
Some of the new institutional arrangements proposed include the creation of an environment reconstruction fund, establishment of a high-quality national environment research institute (along with professionally managed research laboratories to provide technical assistance, as also to assist in monitoring and the prosecution of offenders). The HLC has also drawn attention to the need to deal effectively with urban waste, as also air pollution in cities.
Opposition to the HLC’s recommendations has been along expected lines, mostly emanating from persons and institutions who have not read the report or have only read “critiques”. While many credible nationally renowned environment groups, which were widely consulted as part of the report and many of whose suggestions have been made part thereof, have found the recommendations to be balanced, fringe interest groups have launched aggressive and misleading attacks on the HLC recommendations. This was only to be expected. Most state governments, one understands, have welcomed the thrust of the recommendations, except those that impinge on the powers of the organisations under their control. A measure of the predisposition of most critics is that none has bothered to mention that the provision for “compensatory afforestation” has been proposed to be enhanced to at least 10 to 15 times the present rate.
The need to preserve and indeed enhance the quality of the environment is paramount and inviolate. Equally, in a country where over 70 per cent of the population is steeped in poverty, the need for development in the form of water supply, roads, reliable power, etc, cannot be denied. Each generation has to pass on an improved environment to the next. It also has to pass on the fruits of development and minimal living standards to the citizens of tomorrow. The report strikes a balance. Significant and rapid reform is an imperative. One hopes the ministry will not cherry-pick the recommendations of the HLC to suit its immediate and narrow needs. There is a balance between environment and development in the HLC recommendations that should not be disturbed. This opportunity for reform should not be lost.
The writer, a former cabinet secretary, headed the high-level committee to review environmental laws