Javadekar’s Earlier Stint as Environment Minister and Lessons for Future Amid Rising Concern Over Climate Change
New Delhi: Prakash Javadekar has been named the Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in the Modi 2.0 cabinet.
The ministry is responsible for the conservation of the country’s natural resources like its forests and wildlife and its lakes and rivers. Legislative measures like the National Forest Policy and the National Environment Policy guide its work.
The ministry was previously held by Dr. Harsh Vardhan who was, and still is, in charge of the Ministry of Earth Sciences and the Ministry of Science and Technology.
Javadekar also previously held the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) as its Minister of State (Independent Charge) for about two years from 2014 to 2016.
So, how has the ministry fared in the last two years under Vardhan’s charge and how did it function under Javadekar between 2014 and 2016?
Javadekar's Earlier Stint
Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), says that when Javadekar took over the ministry, it was a time when international negotiations on climate change were underway. “Javadekar played a very active role in those negotiations,” Bhushan says. And these negations ultimately led to the Paris climate agreement being signed in December 2015.
The Paris Agreement’s long term goal is to limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius in the hope that this would curtail the impact of climate change.
Bhushan also explained that Javadekar began his political career as an environmental activist fighting against pollution in Pune. “So, I believe he understands environmental issues. And this is important because environmental challenges are much more today than during his earlier term.”
But Javadekar’s tenure has also been criticised for leading to the dilution of environmental laws.
Noting the cases where actions taken by the ministry under Javadekar led to such dilutions, Kanchi Kohli, Senior Researcher at Centre for Policy Research points at the TSR Subramanian committee that was appointed to ‘review’ seven national laws and the Shailesh Nayak committee that was appointed to review the CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone) notification.
In essence, the TSR Subramanian committee proposed a new Act called the Environment Law Management Act that would subsume pre-existing laws like Environment Protection Act, Forest Conservation Act, Wildlife Protection Act, etc.
And this proposal was widely seen as a move to fast track green clearances.
“The outcome of both these processes has meant a serious dilution of precautionary and public participation clauses,” Kohli said. “It has also resulted in the ministry introducing amnesty schemes for violating projects, rather than penalising them for the illegalities and damage.”
Bhushan, too, agreed that in the past ten years, environmental and forest laws have been diluted and clearances have been provided to numerous polluting industries. “I hope that Javadekar will take this issue seriously and strengthen the process of granting clearances,” Bhushan said.
Environment Ministry Under Vardhan
The ministry brought about key changes to environmental laws and regulations in the last five years. For example, the government introduced standardised guidelines for conducting environment impact studies and issuing environmental clearances.
Reports suggest that as a result of such guidelines, the time required to obtain green clearances dropped from 580 to 180 days.
“In the last five years, the ministry has emphasised that environmental laws need to be altered to facilitate ease of doing business,” Kohli said.
Many experts believe that as a result of such policy moves, the exercise of due diligence in the process of assessment has taken a backseat and has ultimately led to the destruction of the country’s forest cover. Questions have also been raised on the role of the environment ministry - should it work as a regulatory authority whose aim is to protect the environment or should it function as a facilitator of industrial growth?
Kohli said that although there have been statements about why the environment needs to be protected, such sentiments have “not translated into decisions that could potentially holdback approvals for the most destructive projects.”
“These approvals have been granted despite poor track-record on compliance with environmental safeguards,” she added.
The other recent move to dilute environmental regulations was the introduction of the CRZ notification 2018 that allows for increased infrastructural activities and tourism along coastal areas. It ought to be noted here that coastal towns and cities are the most vulnerable to the extreme impacts of climate change and so, the notification is doubly disastrous because, in additional to burdening local ecology, it also opens up coastal areas to the vulnerabilities associated with climate change.
And while Vardhan heads the ministry, the responsibility of addressing challenges like climate change also squarely rests on those at the top.
Debi Goenka, head of Conservation Action Trust says that with Modi as chief minister, Gujarat became the first state in the country to have a department of climate change. “And one of the first things that happened under Modi’s first term was the renaming of the Ministry of Environment and Forests as the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.”
“So, Modi has been aware of climate change issues from a very long time,” Goenka added. “And considering this, the last thing you would want to do is encourage the growth of industrial and infrastructural activities to short-circuit environmental laws.”
In January this year, MoEFCC introduced the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), the first ever effort to tackle air pollution at a national-level.
As part of the programme, city-specific action plans are being formulated in consultation with the Central Pollution Control Board to implement mitigation strategies.
But while the NCAP has largely been considered a step in the right direction, it has also been criticised for lacking teeth given that it only sets out an advisory and is not mandatory.
Vardhan has also come under fire for making contentious remarks that experts believe hurt the scientific temperament in the country.
Recently, Vardhan rejected a report that claimed that there were about 1.2 million deaths in India in 2017 owing to air pollution. The report was prepared by Health Effects Institute (HEI), a US-based research organisation.
The Indian Council of Medical Research under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had also reported that 1.24 million deaths in 2017 were due to air pollution and that, on an average, high air pollutions levels have led to a reduction in life expectancy by 1.7 years.
More notably, at the Indian Science Congress held last year, Vardhan said that Stephen Hawking had acknowledged that the Vedas might have “offered a better theory” than Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Hawking has never acknowledged anything to this effect, news reports later confirmed.
Brikesh Singh, a member of Clean Air Collective, a group of citizen activists says that as a citizen of the country and an air pollution activist, he finds Vardhan’s scientific temperament “disappointing.”
“Harsh Vardhan has even said things like the Delhi smog issue is not an emergency like the Bhopal gas tragedy,” Singh added.
“This removes the urgency that is required to deal with the issue,” he explained. “In January 2018, in one of the first mentions of the NCAP, Harsh Vardhan had stated that the aim is to reduce air pollution by about 50%. But now, the goal has been reduced to 30-40%. I would love to see more ambition in tackling air pollution.”
In view for serious concerns like air pollution and larger issues like climate change looming on the horizon, it remains to be seen how effectively the new minister ministries are able to work out strategies to address the most pressing ecological issues.
Praveen Bharghav, former member of the National Board for Wildlife, said, “In 2015, after meeting Javadekar with Late Ananth Kumar in Bangalore, we had submitted that there was an urgent need to move from a compensatory afforestation regime to a more scientific landscape or ecosystem paradigm and use the best technology to mitigate the impact of fragmentation, when no alternatives are feasible.”
Bharghav added that while the submission was acknowledged, he now hopes that Javadekar takes it up as “a fundamental approach to balance developmental aspirations with conservation imperatives"