New Delhi: The BJP’s 2014 election manifesto had listed environmental management under ‘industry’. It was no accident. The mandate was clear: remove “hurdles” in the way of growth. In the past year, several key changes have been affected in environmental legislation that’ll have a ripple effect in 2019 and many years to come.
Since coming into power in 2014, the BJP government has emphasised the need for speedy clearances, removal of red tape and bottlenecks. It formed a committee to suggest amendments in the six environmental laws of the country that form the bedrock of all regulations - 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.
However, with the move being intensely opposed by experts, activists, the government never implemented the changes fully.
The past year, the last before the government completes its tenure, saw changes in the laws governing India’s environment, from its fragile coastlines to those that protect the vulnerable forest-dwelling populations.
Although critics have argued that these changes amount to diluting India’s robust framework of environmental regulations for a vision of development that is often exclusive, a senior official of the environment ministry disagreed.
The official said, “These laws are often too strict. Sustainable development doesn’t mean no development. These changes have all been implemented while keeping in mind different shareholders.”
After the environment ministry amended coastal zone rules to give relief to projects that had begun in the coastal areas without required clearances, environmentalists warned of dire consequences.
First issued in 1991, under the Environment Protection Act 1986, the notification last year revamped regulatory norms to make it easier to construct along the coastline for development activities like tourism and real estate. However, environmentalists warned that these would give violators a lease of life, and lead to considerable damage along the coastlines.
Easing regulations on real estate sector
Last year, the government made another bid to ease environmental regulations, stipulating that projects that are less than 50,000 square metres don’t require green clearance and, thus, will be allowed to progress without authorities issuing permissions after the check of environmental conditions. The building and construction sector is governed under the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2006 under which any project of more than 20,000 square metres requires permission.
In December 2016, the MoEF introduced a new system wherein projects up to 300,000 square metres would not need the mandatory EC after state authorities integrated environmental conditions with building bye-laws. But this was challenged in January 2018 at the NGT as “a ploy to circumvent the provisions of environmental assessment”.
Tree plantation rules ignore forest dweller rights
The environment ministry notified the Compensatory Afforest Fund (CAF) rules 2018 to ensure proper utilisation of Rs 660 billion for the plantation of trees across India. However, environmentalists and civil society groups argued that the rules ignore the rights of forest dwellers and tribes and that the new rules are against the existing laws that safeguard their right to self-governance in scheduled areas and forest rights.
Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh has also criticised the rules stating that they are in violation of assurances that were given in the Parliament in 2016 by the then environment minister Anil Dave.
‘Uniform’ rules for environmental clearances
In a bid to bring uniformity in terms and conditions for environmental clearances, the MoEF released standard environment clearance conditions for 25 industrial sectors including major ones like coal mines, oil and gas exploration and hydropower projects. Often criticised for being soft on industry, the ministry maintained that this would bring transparency while also being in line with the government’s overall policy of simplifying rules and speeding up the process for the growth of industries.
But environmentalists have remained wary, pointing out that simplicity often comes at a cost and that speed and efficiency doesn’t necessarily mean rigorous science to back the environmental impact of projects.