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Modi government has launched a silent war on the environment

In just three months there have been a number of changes to key committees and regulations – and there's more to come.

The United Progressive Alliance government left behind a legacy of weakened safeguards for India’s environment, forests and forest-dwelling people. The Narendra Modi government has lost no time in weakening them further. The process has been so accelerated that journalists have struggled to keep pace while reporting on them.

While some changes have been made and notified, others are under process. Some changes might still be unknown; given the quiet functioning of the Modi government with officials being directed to refrain from speaking to the media.

Here is a look at seven changes that have been reported.

1) Taking away the right of tribal village councils to oppose an industrial project

The National Democratic Alliance government is looking to discard a provision of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, that requires the "prior informed consent" of gram sabhas before their forests are cleared for industrial activity. The Act, implemented in 2008, recognises the rights of indigenous tribes over forestlands, asking these groups to certify that their rights have not been violated by an upcoming project.

The government is now trying to bypass the gram sabhas without having to amend the Forest Rights Act, the Business Standard reported. It has already removed the need for gram sabha consent while prospecting for minerals in forestlands.

The Forest Rights Act provisions protect local communities that conserve forests since many development projects impinge upon their livelihoods, explained TR Shankar Raman, a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation. He points out that affected communities will turn to protest if they are not kept part of the decision-making process. “It could be counterproductive because after the forests are cleared, there is a lot of tension on the ground, protests and court cases,” he said. “This might help to get the file out of the ministry but six months down the line you run into trouble. You need longer-term thinking on this.”

2)  Reconfiguring the National Board of Wildlife to reduce the authority of independent experts

The government has reconstituted the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife and in doing so has flouted the Wildlife Protection Act’s requirement for independent experts. The new board includes the Gujarat Ecological Education and Research Foundation in place of the mandatory five non-government expert institutions. The government has also replaced 10 individual experts with two new ones, bringing the total number of outside members to just three.

The move is under scrutiny in the Supreme Court, which has stopped the Board from making any decisions until further orders. The court has also put a hold on the few decisions that the newly constituted Board managed to quickly push through. These include a 40-km road passing through the Wild Ass Sanctuary and a 22-km canal of the Sardar Sarovar Project, both in Kutch, Gujarat.

3) Exempting coal mining from public hearings, allowing irrigation projects without clearances

The Environment Ministry has allowed coalmines with a capacity of less than 16 million tons per annum to expand without conducting a public hearing. The cut-off for this exemption used to be 8 mtpa. The ministry has also cleared the one-time expansion of mines with capacity greater than 20 mtpa if the expansion is restricted to 6 mtpa.

Pushp Jain, director of the EIA Resource and Response Centre in New Delhi, says that without a public hearing, local people will be excluded from decision-making and won’t be given a forum to protest. “When a public hearing is held, you have to provide documents about what expansion is planned," he explained. "These will be put where people can see them, circulated to gram panchayats and so on.”

Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta says the public hearing process is supposed to be completed within 30 days as per law and that this cannot by itself cause inordinate delay to the project. “The exemption is problematic because there is a principle of non-regression,” he said. “In issues that concern the environment, you cannot go back because the threats are only increasing with every passing day,”

Irrigation projects affecting less than 2,000 hectares will no longer require environmental clearances. Those occupying less than 10,000 hectares can be cleared by the state governments.

4) Lifting the moratorium on new industries in critically polluted areas

In September 2013, the United Progressive Alliance’s environment ministry directed the Central Pollution Control Board to reassess the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index, an important criterion for project clearance, while keeping intact the moratorium on new industries in critically-polluted areas.

But even before the review is completed, the ministry under Prakash Javadekar has lifted the moratorium in eight critically polluted areas – Ghaziabad, Indore, Jharsuguda, Ludhiana, Panipat, Patancheru-Bollaram, Singrauli and Vapi.

In a blog post on Down To Earth, environmental activist Rohit Prajapati explains how the UPA government, under pressure from pollution-affected groups, imposed the moratorium on these eight areas. Pressure from the industrial lobby prevented it from imposing the moratorium on all 43 regions identified as critically polluted. “The mucky politics and economics of ‘GDP growth’ prevailed over the cause of ‘life and livelihood’ of ordinary people and ‘environment & conservation’,” he writes.

Prajapati says that the Modi government has gone a step further, and once again cleared the decks for industry without addressing issues of pollution and refusing to engage in debate about it.

5) Diluting forest norms and allowing industry to creep closer to national parks 

The environment ministry has changed a provision of the Environmental Impact Assessment rules to allow projects to come up within 5 km of a protected area without clearance from the now-toothless National Board for Wildlife. The earlier rule made NBWL clearance mandatory for projects in these eco-sensitive zones unless they were 10 km or more away.

Even more damaging, the ministry has reduced the parameters for deciding whether a forestland can be opened up for mining and industry. The ministry will now use four parameters instead of six parameters – forest type, biological richness, wildlife value, density of forest cover, integrity of the landscape, and hydrological value.

The environment ministry has relaxed Forest Conservation Act norms for road, rail and other public works projects that involve cutting trees in forest areas. It has also lifted restrictions in the ecologically sensitive areas near the Line of Actual Control and Naxal-affected districts by giving states more power to issue clearances and lessening the load on the central ministry.

6) Diluting the scope of the National Green Tribunal

Reports suggest that the government is holding discussions to curtail the powers of the National Green Tribunal, the body that first hears all challenges to forest and environmental clearances before they can be passed up to the Supreme Court. This move might prove difficult, given that the tribunal is active, vocal and constantly in the public eye.

The NGT is the only dedicated environmental court in the country, which has been formed as a result of India’s international obligation under the Rio Decleration. The court has been set up on recommendations of the Law Commission and orders by the Supreme Court that found the need for expert adjudication because environmental matters are complicated. “Any step to actually dilute it or reduce its power would be counter productive and will be in violation of our international obligations,’ Dutta said.

7) New environmental committee set up to review laws

Possibly the most far-reaching change that the new government hopes to bring about is an overhaul of the five main environmental laws of the country – the Environment Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act, the Wildlife Protection Act, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act. The environment ministry has set up a committee to review these laws and recommend amendments.

“The mandate is not to strengthen the law to protecting the environment,” said Ashish Kothari of the environmental NGO Kalpavriksh. “It’s a very broad mandate, which given the economic climate, is to make it more investment friendly,” Kothari feels that any dilution of the Environment Protection Act, an overarching law that includes environmental impact assessment and coastal regulation zone notifications, will be particularly harmful.

Dutta feels that the government will act to remove all criminal offences and replace them with civil penalties. “That is something that the government would be very keen to do because that is what the market overall wants,” he said. “It is essentially a pay and pollute system that would be coming in.”

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