Demand Deep and Democratic Review of Indian Environmental Coastal and Forest Clearance Monitoring and Compliance Laws
Mr. S. K. Aggarwal
Union Ministry of Environment and Forests
Dear Mr. Aggarwal,
If there is any issue with environmental decision making in India that deserves the most careful scrutiny and attention of all, it is in attending to serious gaps and inconsistencies in enforcing environmental, CRZ and forest clearances. It is widely known that such clearances can be very easily secured, a fact admitted by none other than the Minister of State for Environment and Forests Shri. Jairam Ramesh in an interview to Gulf News (10 October 2009):
“Rather than environment (clearances) being an obstruction (to development in India), the environmental laws are not implemented the way they should be. In fact, we give a lot of approvals and the rate of sanctions is over 92 per cent, which is unhealthily high. In the last 10 years, we must have approved about 7,000 projects and each of these have conditions and safeguards attached to them. But unfortunately, we do not have a system of monitoring compliance with these standards. Till now, environment has not been taken seriously enough, with the result that many approved projects have not fulfilled the conditions associated with the clearance.”
Clearly, compounding weak review mechanisms is the almost total failure in enforcing the conditions of clearances. Such a situation has caused maximum environmental and social strife resulting in thousands of communities being unjustly dislocated, rivers and streams getting polluted beyond repair and devastating forests, while fertile farming areas are recklessly converted into sites for industries, infrastructure projects, power sector development, etc. Meanwhile, coastal areas are being opened up from siting nuclear plants, SEZs, tourism projects, and so on, even as mining expands with impunity into forests, common lands and agricultural areas. All this has made an utter mockery of our environmental norms and laws and raises serious questions about the utility of the currently highly centralised decision making processes of the Ministry.
In this light the undersigned acknowledge the serious initiative of the Ministry in reviewing systemic weaknesses in decision making relating to environmental and CRZ clearances by constituting an in-house Review Committee on 25th August 2010. This Committee has put out a 'Draft Paper' on 'Monitoring Compliance of Environment/CRZ clearance Conditions – A New Approach' which is only accessible at a peripheral section of the Ministry's website at: http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/Com-Mon-Prjt.pdf. . While appreciating the fact that the Ministry has actually addressed a serious lacunae in environmental decision making processes, the fact that the Ministry has paid scant attention to due and deep public consultation is evident in the rushed attempt to seek wider public opinion in a little over a fortnight of 'issual' of this paper – due date for comments is 15th September.
The issues involved are complex. Lack of adequate consultation has been one major area of failure in environmental decision-making in India. The evidence for this is available amongst impacted communities across the country. It is a fact that the current Ministry has been different from earlier ones in its attempts to seek public input on important policy decisions. To build on and make better the consultation process, it is imperative that the Ministry avoid undue haste in rushing through the consultation on this key reform issue.
This is especially important because lessons learned here will help substantially in addressing the proposed move to establish the National Environment Protection Agency, the reform of laws relating to EIA and CRZ, and also those governing Forest Rights and diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes.
Keeping the above in view, the undersigned urge you to immediately extend the deadline for comments on this paper to a later date (say three months from now), pending which, the Ministry can ensure:
1) The document is translated into all regional languages for wider public dissemination by all regional offices of MoEF and CPCB, all offices of State Pollution Control Boards, and all Environment Departments and related divisions across the country.
2) Sincere efforts should be made to encourage debate and discussion on this paper in every district across the country.
3) The Regional Offices of MoEF and CPCB, as well as PCB's and State Environment Departments must collaborate in joint or independent efforts to hold public consultations across the country.
4) Collated reports of such processes should be available for easy and systematic access through online systems on existing agency and department websites, and must be integrated into the 'discussion paper' before finalising this document.
5) The review of this process must be guided by an Independent Panel and not an in-house Committee as is presently the case. This Panel should be constituted with people of integrity from different disciplines and should have the freedom to hold nation-wide consultations. The terms of reference for this Panel must also be expanded to include review of compliance provisions under the Forest Conservation Act, Wildlife Protection Act, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, and various Rules and Notifications under the Environment Protection Act.
Only by such a process of review can there be true and meaningful reform. Else the current exercise of seeking comments may end up being ritualistic and a mere rearranging of the same old flawed process with the serious gaps that exist in current environmental decision making in India.
Mr. Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests
Secretary, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests
Director General of Forests, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests
Chairman, Central Pollution Control Board