Three Years of the Modi Government

Environmental Protection: A Mixed Bag

18 Jul, 2017    ·   5321

Garima Maheshwari assesses the state-of-affairs of environment protection in India in the past three years 

Garima Maheshwari
Garima Maheshwari
Researcher, Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS)
The last three years under the incumbent government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi have seen several initiatives being taken in the field of environmental policymaking. To observers, it may often come as a surprise that there is a sharp polarisation between extremely positive initiatives on the one hand (like India’s assertive position on climate change, ambitious climate action targets, bills institutionalising water for life, waste management and air pollution regulations), and clearly negative anti-people actions on the other hand (especially the regulation of natural ecosystems like coasts, forests and wetlands and erosion of people’s rights). In reality, however, there is little contradiction between the two, as the past three years of the government have been marked by the development of a coherent strategy for making the environment an opportunity for capital accumulation.

Business Development Benefits at the Cost of Rights
The most recurrent theme of contention during the past three years has been the erosion of people’s rights due to ‘development’ initiatives – a contention that was raised against the previous government as well. Arguably, this mode of ‘regulatory development’ is based on a command-and-control type approach wherein local-level claims to the environmental commons have been considerably eroded. They have come to be defined less by locals’ ownership of environmental management practices and more by the mode of post facto participatory public consultations, which, in themselves, have never really been transparent.

A recent case-in-point would be the government's coastal development plans flagged in early 2016, which identify Coastal Economic Zones (CEZs) for industrial development opportunities near port facilities, as well as development of the local coastal communities. The latter seems more of an ironic formality flagged by the government since not only has there been no basic public consultation, even the envisaged plan appropriates coastal land as an unproductive space, ignoring the coastline’s thousands of marine fishing villages and about a million-plus people engaged in fisheries-related activities.

This is not to suggest that the co-existence between local communities and environment does not automatically implicate the former for potential environmental harm caused locally; yet, the balance of costs and benefits in a contest between the communities and the state is far outweighed by the historical claims of communities to the commons, which is also institutionalised in the Indian constitution. Thus, any cost-benefit calculus deriving from this equation is defeated by the fact that institutions of community ownership have been legalised in our system, which accord legitimacy to community claims. The same kind of legitimacy has clearly not been conferred on powerful business interests – who are not victims of a livelihood crisis – and they often find the state coming to their rescue by resorting to mechanisms like eminent domain.  

Currently, with the government itself disregarding people’s welfare, safety norms and the environmental repercussions of such development plans, it is worth questioning the ultimate purpose for which regulations are being revamped. And, if the government’s coastal development plans sound like a capitalist accumulation process – as observed in the Nayak Committee Report – then its policymaking operations through notifications and rules contribute to such a process.

The most obvious example of this would be this government’s turbulent dalliance with its series of Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notifications. While India has had a long history of EIA manipulations, this government appears to be further seeking to systematise a convenient treatment of violators, instead of the earlier norm of taking up individual cases. Effectively, the EIA has regularised a system of environmental protection in which post facto payment of money for environmental violations does not address the permanent damage done to the environment, and businesses are guaranteed backdoor entry into the system.

Such a business development approach is also seen in other policy initiatives like the Model Building Bye-laws, whose dilution originates from online environmental clearances that obviate the need for actual site checks and place implicit trust in the builder; besides, automatic clearance of a proposal pending for more than a month is allowed.

Putting Environmental Protection on the Backburner
The past three years of the Modi government have seen various measures that have either sought to dilute environmental protection regulations or notify rules that lead to the degradation of critical natural ecosystems. It all began in the form of the TSR Subramanian Committee report, which recommended significant dismantling of key historical laws that protected India’s environment. Subsequent policy measures cohere with the dilution inspired by the Committee’s recommendations.

Indeed, the dilution of protection of natural ecosystems is visible in the modification of the Wetland Rules of 2010, so that now the Centre has devolved all powers of wetland management to the states, who have been major violators of wetland conservation, and has notified the removal of the Central Wetland Regulatory Authority through which citizens were able to register grievances on mismanagement of wetlands. 

When the government is not proposing such dilutions, it is coming up with innovations, albeit with little regard to local ecology. Many of these innovations are mainly being seen in the areas of forests and rivers. Notwithstanding little progress in the flagship ‘Namami Gange’ mission or the extent of corruption therein, rivers have been a highlight. The government’s high-profile river-linking proposal, the hub of which is the Ken-Betwa river-linking project, would adversely impact the livelihood needs of the Bundelkhand region by diverting the upper Betwa basin waters to other regions of Uttar Pradesh, and would also lead to diversion of forest lands. 

Forests have, independently, been at the centre of much debate, thanks to the passage of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) bill which promotes compensatory afforestation in lieu of land diverted for non-forest purposes. Needless to say, this will completely flout the rights of the indigenous communities institutionalised under the Forest Rights Act (2006). Justifiably, the bill has been compared to a reversion to the draconian land acquisition laws of the colonial era. 

The government’s policy decisions seem to arise from a systemic and endemic disregard for environmental protection and the violation of people’s rights that was created and entrenched by the previous regime. Thus, while three years of the Modi government have raised environmentalists' hackles, it is also worth noting that the majority of these environmental loopholes were in the system much before this government came to power. 

Nonetheless, the government’s frequent interventions reflect its keen engagement with environment, marking a break from the bureaucratic lethargy of the erstwhile regime. Its overall track record however shows that the government needs to combine its success and innovations with a concern for well-being of the people and the environment, instead of exacerbating and competing to outdo the follies of the previous regime.