For decades, communities have opposed what passes for development at the cost of the environment. In January, for instance, villagers in Azamgarh, close to Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, opposed plans to expand the town’s airport.

Since 2021, residents have been opposing the international Blue Flag certification for Goa’s Cavelossim beach that is granted to breaches that meet environmental and sustainability criteria. Critics say this certification overrides key environmental rules.

Close to Telangana’s capital Hyderabad, residents of a village have since January last year protested against the expansion of stone quarrying, citing health and pollution concerns.

In India, conflicts historically arise between communities that depend on the land for their livelihoods and the authorities responsible with their welfare, a dynamic made worse when corporations seek to alter the terrain for profit. This is particularly true when it comes to environmental and climate policies, as the consequences of decisions made in this domain could have profound effects on the well-being of the environment and the people it sustains.

The key stakeholders of any project have to be the citizens who will be affected – a fact that is often overlooked. They are often kept out of the conversation until it is too late, and the only recourse is community action or long-drawn-out judicial efforts.

Can there be another way?

Democracy demands dialogue as the primary medium of achieving equilibrium among citizens who have entered into this social contract with the state. The obvious solution is to prioritise conversation and consultation between all stakeholders in the decision-making process. This would ensure that the environment is not harmed, that people’s rights are not infringed upon and that everyone involved has a say in shaping the policies that will affect their lives.

But does a deliberative approach to policy making have a place in the realpolitik of India today?

Community members who depend on the land for their livelihoods have a unique perspective on the environment and its needs. They have a vested interest in protecting their homes and way of life, and are often willing to work hard to ensure that the environment is saved for future generations.

While drafting environmental and climate policies, governments must consider the needs of the people and the environment.

For instance, in Odisha, the government in 2004 granted permission to British mining company Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills, sacred to the Dongria Kondh, an Adivasi group. The mining would have destroyed the Dongria Kondh’s sacred mountain, disrupted their way of life and endangered the environment.

The Dongria Kondh tribe and supporters organised and mobilised against the proposal. They held public consultations, protests, and legally challenged the mining clearance. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Dongria Kondh, cancelling the mining clearance and recognising the Dongria Kondh’s rights to the land and its resources.

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe walk on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, in this photograph from February 2010. Credit: Reuters.

Governments are elected by the people and must listen to the concerns of those who are going to be affected by their decisions. This is especially important when it comes to marginalised communities that are most vulnerable to the impact of environmental decisions, as was seen in the case of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant protests.

Fishing communities in Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu protested and legally challenged the plant’s operations, fearing that it would harm the environment, their health and livelihoods. Protests began in 2001 and continued for several years. Communities organised public consultations, hunger strikes in addition to mounting court cases. The protests garnered national and international attention, pressurising the Indian government to address the concerns. The plant finally began operations in 2013 despite strong opposition.

In March last year, the Kudankulam village panchayat passed a resolution against the construction of the away-from-reactor facility where spent fuel is stored.

Residents fear that the spent nuclear fuel stored in the facility would pose a serious environmental hazard to the area, given past instances, such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan that resulted in large-scale contamination after the plant was damaged following a tsunami. Despite the protests, the Kudankulam plant remains India’s largest nuclear plant with two units functional and four more units under construction.

These protests could perhaps have been avoided if public consultation had not been such a luxury for Indian citizens. By bringing together stakeholders in a decision-making process, governments could create policies that are more effective, efficient and equitable. Public consultations could help identify potential problems before they occur, saving time and money in the long run. They could also help to build trust and encourage collaboration between communities and authorities that can be invaluable in tackling complex environmental and climate issues.

Consultations are not just for policymakers but also for implementers, as seen in the case of Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 2011, which regulates activities along the coast to protect the fragile coastal ecosystem.

The notification was the result of extensive public consultations with coastal and fishing communities, and other stakeholders over several years. The consultations helped ensure that the notification was effective in protecting the environment while also taking into account the needs and concerns of those who depend on the coast for their livelihood.

Public consultations enable the voices of those most affected to be heard and their needs and concerns to be met. There is a growing volume of academic evidence of the importance of deliberation in strengthening democracy.

Demonstrators stand in their boats in the Bay of Bengal during a protest near the Kudankulam nuclear power project in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu October 8, 2012. Demonstrators are protesting against the country's largest nuclear power project, over fears about the plant's safety. REUTERS/Stringer (INDIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS ENERGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

India has had other notable instances where public consultations led to better environmental laws and policies, such as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 – better known as the Forest Rights Act. This crucial legislation passed by Parliament recognises the rights of forest dwelling communities who have been residing on forest land for generations.

The act was the result of years of advocacy and collective action by these communities, who mobilised to make their voices heard in the decision-making process. The act recognises three types of rights of forest dwellers: right over forest land, community rights and rights over community forest resources. A series of public consultations helped shape the final legislation and ensure that the rights and needs of forest-dwelling communities were prioritised.

Consultations in the domain of climate could be particularly beneficial for communities living on the coast or near protected lands. These communities often have a deep connection to the environment and depend on it for their livelihoods. By bringing their voices to the fore, governments can ensure that their needs and concerns are taken into account when making decisions that will affect their lives.

If India is to tackle the climate crisis, it is essential for governments to recognise the value of the role of citizens in the decision-making process and to prioritise public consultations while drafting environmental and climate policies.

Shachi Nelli works at Civis where she specialises in facilitating public participation in policy making through consultations.

This article is part of a series written to bring attention to Climate Voices, a definitive handbook on the how and why of public participation in environmental legislation, which was launched by Civis on April 29.

More about the handbook here.