A little over a month after it was formed, a high-level committee convened by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is running into green protests.

The Ministry set up the committee, headed by former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramanian, on August 29 to review five of its key laws pertaining to the environment, forest, wildlife, water and air. It has been given two months to submit its report. The committee plans to meet 500 groups of stakeholders from environment groups and industry across the country in this period.

The committee's last meeting was in Delhi on October 7 and the next is said to be in Mumbai on October 26 or 27.

“Our primary purpose is to protect the environment,” said Subramanian. “We are just seeing what we can do to make environment laws not looser but tighter, all within the frame of the Constitution.”

At meetings and in a conversation with Scroll, Subramanian cited the need for development, saying that poverty and illiteracy needed to be overcome and that lax environment laws came in the way.

“Our job is to say that the environment is supreme,” he told Scroll. “But at the same time we should not have to blame the lack of development in the country on environment regulations.”

Consultations too brief?

It is too early to anticipate what the committee’s eventual report will contain, but environmental activists have pointed out certain flaws in the environment ministry's approach to the review.

“We feel that those going through the process are not serious about it,” said Pushp Jain of the Delhi-based Environment Impact Assessment Resource and Research Centre. “These laws were created with a lot of effort and you cannot amend all the laws related to forests and the environment in a two-month span.”

The laws under review ‒ the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974, the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981 and the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986 ‒ are considered the legislative backbone of the ministry, and have long been opposed by industrial groups.

The environment ministry itself is not clear on what is to be done with the committee’s report, or indeed, what the committee is supposed to be doing in the first place.

In its terms of reference, dated August 29, the only public brief given to the committee, the ministry asks it to suggest what can be done to bring the five acts in line with their objectives, but does not state what these objectives are.

This issue escalated out of control at a meeting in Bangalore on September 27, when activists pressed the committee on the issue. In a well-publicised blog post, Leo Saldanha, coordinator of the Environment Support Group, spoke of how Subramanian left the meeting 30 minutes early, after a group of activists insisted that the committee elaborate on its terms of reference.

Subramanian disagreed with this.

“I told them this is not a formal hearing,” he said. “If they don’t want to give their views, it is their choice. But if they have questions about parameters and membership, they should take it up with the government, as it is the government that has given me this mandate.”

Whose review is it anyway?

Another concern is that the meetings themselves are too short and not truly open to the public. The committee’s approach to inviting citizens for the meeting is evolving as it moves from place to place. In Bhubaneshwar and Patna, the state government and the committee invited participants from their separate lists. In Bangalore, the state government organised one meeting and the committee another. In Delhi, citizens were invited only by the committee.

“We tried to cover as many places as we could in a limited period depending on the availability of the members,” countered Subramanian. “Sankaracharya spent 20 years going through the continent, but we do not have that time.”

The environment ministry has also not publicly published a schedule of the committee's meetings anywhere, leaving activists dependent on their sources in and out of the government to learn about them.

In Bhubaneshwar, for instance, citizens complained of not knowing about the September 13 meeting in advance.

“We got to know about the meeting only from emails in groups,” said Sudarshan Chhotray, of the Focus Orissa Forum on Climate Change. “The state government told us about the meeting only after we asked them about it.”

Added Shankar Pani, another environmentalist in Bhubaneshwar who attended the meeting, “Perhaps 25 people, including representatives of industry, civil society, retired bureaucrats and academics, were there.”

There were two meetings in Bhubaneshwar, the first with government officials and the second open to the public. Subramanian was not present at the second.

For the Delhi meeting, Ritwick Dutta, the founder of the Environment Impact Assessment Resource and Research Centre, received an invitation from the joint secretary of the committee. Only a few groups were invited, although the committee did not turn away anyone else who decided to attend.

“The groups affected by the environment are not necessarily environment NGOs,” Dutta said. “The committee should reach out to civil society groups working for tribal rights, livelihood, women’s rights and displacement as well.”

“I am not against reviewing laws,” added Dutta. “Any new government coming to power should review laws. But the entire thrust should be on how not to dilute them. There is a procedural issue here. It is difficult on the face of it to review five or six laws in two months.”