By Mayank Aggarwal
New Delhi - It is the final leg of the current Indian government’s tenure, which began in 2014. As the general elections loom, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government has gone into hyperactive mode over the past year, proposing a major overhaul of the country’s environmental laws that govern its forests, fragile coasts, precious wildlife and manage the toxic levels of air pollution.
Once the proposed changes are finalised they will become the cornerstone for India's environment sector policy for at least the next two decades. However, environmentalists point out that the changes seem like they have been proposed in quick succession to avoid wider and detailed consultations among all stakeholders and speed up the process of finalisation.
They also allege that the proposed changes are not focused on protecting and conserving the environment but instead, are looking at making environmental laws easier for growth of industries - a promise made by PM Modi just before the 2014 general elections.
Tinkering with the country's green laws is not new for the current government. Since coming to power in May 2014, it has implemented a series of environment law-related changes. However, it has not yet been able to intiate any big-ticket plans. With the general elections now scheduled to take place in first the half of 2019, the government has hit the gas to implement large-scale changes.
Land, water and air
In October 2017, the government finalised the third National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-31) of India. The first such plan was adopted in 1983 and the second in 2002 which ended in 2016.
This NWAP along with three proposed action plans, concerning forests, coasts and air pollution, are critical for this government as together they will form the core of environmental regulation in the country and will be related to the majority of the developmental work planned by the government.
A set of major changes are outlined in the draft National Forest Policy (NFP) 2018 which was unveiled by India's Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in March 2018. The ministry had sought comments on it from experts and all other stakeholders by April 14 2018. The draft was criticised by activists who stated that the changes proposed are just an opening for the private sector to advance into the forestry sector. Once finalised, the policy will be significant for India's forest sector as it will be the overarching document for management of forests over the next 25-30 years.
The first NFP took effect in 1952 while the second edition was adopted in 1988. At present, the second edition is in force. The latest draft is in line with the government's vision of having 33 percent of India's total geographical area under forest and tree cover.
According to a senior official in the forest division of the MoEFCC, a range of responses have been received on the draft NFP 2018, including from political parties (mainly the left-wing parties). "The suggestions, views and recommendations are being examined and it will soon be finalised during the next couple of months. We will address all concerns raised," the official stated.
However, this is not the first attempt at updating the NFP as efforts towards it started soon after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government assumed power in May 2014. One version of the draft NFP was put online in 2016 but the government later backtracked and withdrew the draft.
"It is not the first time that the environmental laws are being diluted. There has been a consistent endeavour by the government to weaken the green laws in recent years. The draft national forest policy 2018 is nothing but a repackaged form of the changes proposed earlier for opening up the forests for the private sector. Those changes were vociferously opposed, but now the government is again trying for privatisation of forests through the new national forest policy," said Tushar Dash, forest rights expert and activist working with tribals and forest dwellers in Odisha.
Besides forests, India's 7,500-kilometre coastline is also staring at a complete makeover with the government looking at replacing the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification 2011. The environment ministry had made public the draft CRZ notification 2018 in April this year, giving all interested stakeholders 60 days to submit their suggestions.
According to environmentalists, the latest draft CRZ Notification 2018 proposes to open up the coastline for the industry, real estate and tourism sector rather than protecting the fragile coast. However, it doesn't come as a surprise to many as the changes proposed are crucial to the Modi government's flagship programmes such as Sagarmala and Housing for All.
Environmentalists who have been closely tracking the changes being made by the government argue that it is not just the extensive changes that are being carried out that are a concern, but also that the government has been amending rules without public consultation, in the name of public interest.
"What is worse is several amendments are being issued in the name of public interest and taking away the opportunity for citizens to engage with these changes that are of the order of exempting particular project types from approvals. This practice only distances the citizens from their government," said Kanchi Kohli, a legal research director at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR)-Namati Environmental Justice Programme.
Similar has been the case of Indian government's first National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). The proposed national action programme to tackle toxic levels of air pollution across nearly all major Indian cities, as well as rural areas, was finally unveiled in April 2018 after years of hue and cry over the issue. Comments were sought on it by May 17 and it is also in the final stages of preparation. Though a good start, experts have called it a toothless and directionless plan as it sets no targets for reducing pollution from the cities.
Why this haste?
Senior environmental lawyer in the Supreme Court of India, Sanjay Upadhyay, cautioned against haste. "Make haste slowly. We are dealing with the environment which is not a creation of man but a gift to the earth. So any reform which has implications on the environment has to be thought through carefully and not in a hurried fashion. More importantly, the people who understand the sector on the ground need to be involved," said Upadhyay.