By Bharat Lal Seth:
India has a new environment minister in Anil Madhav Dave. A three-time parliamentarian, he brings prior experience in river conservation, has written books on climate change, and his preferred mode of transport is the bicycle. On paper he is a good fit for the ministry, but he is pedaling up steep gradients.
The former minister, Prakash Javadekar, has been promoted to another ministry with cabinet rank. Javadekar’s elevation has less to do with his work protecting and conserving the environment, and perhaps more to do with thanking him for his efforts to dilute existing environmental safeguards, a move heavily favored by extractive industries. His final play is a draft notification to introduce a get-out-of-jail scheme for environmental violators.
This notification is a disaster for the environment. Under its purview, for example, if the construction of a large dam begins without prior lawful assessment and statutory clearances, the project will still be appraised for clearance. An undefined ‘Expert Group’ along with the violator, will together decide on remedial measures as part of an ‘Environmental Supplemental Plan’. This process will ignore the fact that the project evaded steps specified by the Environment Impact Notification, which involves a process of screening, scoping, public consultation and appraisal before according a project clearance. Everybody deserves a second chance, right?
“This has been drafted like an environment clearance surety plan,” says Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer who has reviewed the draft. Astute officials at the environment ministry published the draft in the Gazette of India and set a timeline of 60 days; it was not put up on the Ministry website, as is normal practice, nor advertised in the media. An attentive civil society representative dug it out and shared it widely. Numerous letters of objection were submitted before July 9, the last day for comments.
The draft is deceitfully worded, and it’s almost amusing, the lengths that the Ministry is going, in order to improve the so-called “ease of doing business”. The scheme, the draft states, is, “…an opportunity to develop and demonstrate new technologies that may prove more protective of human health and the environment than existing processes and procedures.” So, the governmental guardians of India’s environment believe that condoning illegal corporate behavior may result in novelty and invention. A more detailed critique can be read here.
The draft notification is a perverse solution to the problem of violations and non-compliance, and goes against the sagacity of assessing impacts beforehand. A retrospective green nod to illicit projects must be rejected, and replaced by a stout implementation and monitoring of existing safeguards. Activists, NGOs and civil society representatives are hopeful the new minister will cancel this notification immediately.