Environmental justice is the aim of environmental movements. For the policymaker, regulation is the route to achieve it. Keeping this in mind, the Centre for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS) at the IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute organised a lecture on Environment Justice Challenge for Environment Regulation in India as part of its special series on #LocalGovernance.
Mr Tikender Singh Panwar, Former Deputy Mayor, Shimla; Visiting Senior Fellow, IMPRI, started the session by listing some worrying news from the past few years, such as India securing the 168th rank in the Environmental Performance Index in 2020, 20 companies across the world being responsible for 55% of single-use plastic waste, the fast pace at which we are losing our biodiversity, and the massive change of land use from forests to real estate and other infrastructure.
He stressed the importance of participatory governance and building struggles, networks and alliances to achieve sustainable environmental outcomes.
Ms Kanchi Kohli, Senior Researcher, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi, began by saying that environmental regulation and justice have to be seen in conjunction with each other as regulation is the means to environmental justice from the policy perspective.
Whether regulation achieves the desired outcomes depends on both its implementation and design. Many economic sectors find environmental regulation to be too harsh on them, hindering their work and reducing possibilities of generating employment.
During the lockdown, there was a re-engagement with the environment for many Indians. Pictures of a cleaner Yamuna, of the Himalayas being visible from Saharanpur and birds flooding public places, were shared. At the same time, essential services like mining managed to triple their activities due to no oversight and grievance redressal mechanisms.
Since the 1990s in India, the idea behind most environmental regulations was striking a balance between science and democratic procedures to ensure environmental protection. Most of these laws and policies were not intended to interfere with the economy.
Over the years, however, two distinct challenges in regulation emerged:
She pointed out that both environmentally damaging projects and the solutions designed to manage them ended up causing environmental damage.
For instance, when projects require trees in urban areas to be chopped, solutions are in the form of compensatory afforestation or transplantation of trees. However, when trees are transplanted, they can cause problems in the area they are transplanted to.
As in the case of the Yamuna floodplains, the transplanted trees affected the different ecology, hydrological cycle and social ethos of the area. The process of administering solutions itself created injustice.
The recent amendments have been diluting environmental regulations, which sometimes happens for what is seen as a good cause. She used the example of a renewable energy project to illustrate this. Such a project may be perceived as a good project for the environment and thus be exempted from regulation.
However, skipping the democratic process and participatory governance will lead to a project without any social legitimacy. The local people would not respect it since they weren’t consulted. Moreover, when accidents occur in these projects, such conflicts worsen.
In the past 7 years, environmental regulation is also being used as a tool for making political decisions, as in NITI Aayog’s report on justifying intervention in Lakshadweep.
Regulation acts like the path to justify projects with predetermined political outcomes. This occurs at the global level as well. We cannot forget that the existing regulations are not the best-case scenario by far and the lack of compliance is not just a sign of poor governance but also poor economics.
Mr Panwar remarked that governance models were being corporatised. He spoke about how in a particular hydropower project, the State Electricity Board was the biggest hindrance for the project, but to move it along the function of approval, it was given to another body. The local people have to be involved in projects that concern them as in the end, it is only they who suffer the loss of land and identity.
Dr Arjun Kumar, Director, IMPRI, mentioned the new schemes being introduced worldwide to reinvigorate growth after the pandemic and asked how international events and actions like China’s plans for the one belt road and the national infrastructure pipeline investments would impact the environment.
Ms Kohli said that what transpired at the international level affects the locals and that different laws gave different powers to the local people. While many laws rendered them powerless and at the mercy of government decisions in say national interest, others required the consent of locals in any projects based in an area.
There are concerns of economically competing with other countries at the international level, and this rush of competition makes environmental conservation and justice unimportant and local voices irrelevant.
When the institutions supposed to impose compliance and prevent damage themselves fail to adhere to the rules, it is disappointing. She repeated that the laws and policies themselves caused environmental injustice and were just the low-hanging fruit.
In response to a question on how the lack of efforts and results made one cynical, Ms Kohli said that while cynicism was understandable in the face of how we are addressing environmental concerns despite the number of catastrophes that have occurred over the years, we didn’t have a choice but to give up cynicism and understand and respond to the issues themselves.
Dr Kumar asked how Ms Kohli viewed certain methods of financing relief during the pandemic, such as the green bonds being used by the U.K.
Ms Kohli was sceptical about financialised environmental solutions. She noted that though carbon credits and green bonds generated money, they also legitimised environmental destruction in other parts of the world. Their design did not consider local social ethos and assigning monetary value to the environment did little to encourage environmental justice.
Acknowledgement: Sonali Panis is a Research Intern at IMPRI.