Sunday, 21 August 2016

India’s Biggest Environmental Scam:

A google search on companies/polluters in India fined for polluting will throw up just a handful of results which does not even cover the first page. This can probably give you an indication of how dismal the state of our environmental safeguards and justice is in. Most of our environmental laws and policies including those related to wildlife were constituted on strong principles way back in the 70s, 80s and 90s (even though some provisions allowed conservation and management of forests to move away from communities to the Forest Department like that in the British Era). The Indian Judiciary, especially the apex court, in the past has upheld many of these laws, made relevant changes, and forced government departments to act in their judgements; however some of the orders which went against the environment, basic principles of law and people have managed to do a lot more damage than the goods done by other orders. Some orders, which were meant to maintain a balance, managed to create that ‘loophole’ which has been fully utilized by corporations/governments to further destroy forests and eco-systems and alienate communities.

Even then, there was hope because we had the laws.

In the past two years, the current government has systematically gone about changing/adding/deleting/rewording the various acts/rules/notifications and even particular clauses to create loopholes, ambiguity, and opportunities for misinterpretations. New bills and draft policies have been outlined (some carried forward from the previous government) with such alacrity that it’s difficult to stay updated. (Atleast you get to know that the government mechanisms can be fast and efficient if it chose to be). But the best part of these new bills, policies, alterations etc. is that they are so beautifully worded that lay people like me would almost swoon because of the department’s ‘concerns’ about the environment and climate change. It requires a slow detailed reading to understand that once you string these changes together, collectively, they are leading to India’s biggest environmental scam.

Some examples: from notices I have read; there could be more which I might have missed.

Draft Wetland Conservation and Management Rules – 2016: The detailed definitions/categorisation of what constitutes wetlands and the list of activities that should not be allowed around them have either been removed or made limited in scope. The states have been given the power to define what may constitute as Wetlands according to their process of identification. This draft Rules completely waters down the objective of conservation and preservation and puts more emphasis on the principle of 'wise use' of Wetlands (no definition given), its conservation, ‘regulation and management’, ‘integrated management of land, water and natural resources’ which converges with existing state development plans that 'promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way'. There is no mention of Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs), monitoring of implementation, or process of appeal to a court (NGT) in case of violations. There is no mention of what should be strictly prohibited; instead it opens up the Wetlands to opportunities for various ‘wise uses’.    

Draft Environment Laws (Amendment) Bill - 2015: This amendment deals with penalties for damage to environment – which here has been limited to air, water and gaseous pollution only. Though the Bill increased the fine for polluting from a mere Rs.1 lakh to upto Rs.20 crores, it has created ambiguity by defining pollution vaguely as ‘minor violations’, ‘substantial damage’, and ‘non-substantial damage’ and capping fines accordingly. What happens when the environmental damage is irreparable like a nuclear disaster or another Bhopal gas tragedy? These provisions allow for corporations to pollute, pay and get away with it. Instead of overhauling a decaying or an already dead system of pollution control, the Bill merely focuses on penalties for pollution with no provisions for preventing future damage. The biggest issue in this Bill however is creation of another vague Adjucating Authority which will bypass NGT thus reducing its power over such matters.

Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification - 2016: This is one of the most hilarious drafts. As well as one of the most damaging. Hilarious because it copied word for word from a US environmental policy. Damaging because it attempts to legalise violations made by corporations on environmental clearances. Currently, EIAs are the only environmental check which allows for taking crucial and sound environmental decisions on ‘development’ and any environmental clearance violation is regarded as a criminal offence. However, this Notification allows a violator to continue with the business if they agree to pay a sum of money as compensation for the damage already done, and also implement an Environmental Supplement Plan to restore the environment. This notification goes against all basic principles (precautionary principal and polluters pay) of environmental laws across the globe and will allow corporates to violate, pay and operate.

Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) & Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Act – 2016: This is where the laws become deadly. This is also an example of how a supposedly good judgement created a loophole which can go down in history as one of the deadliest for India’s environment. In order to deter parties (user agencies) from cutting down forests, the apex court asked the government to create a central fund, put a value to our forests and use the money collected for compulsory afforestation. The government (previous) helpfully put such a low value to our forests, that most of us can easily afford to buy a hectare or two. The idea of preserving green cover by first chopping down trees and then afforesting them itself is bizarre. If one needs to conserve natural, virgin forests, why cut them down in the first place? The Bill drafted by the current government allows for private parties to pitch for tenders for afforestation projects. Though the Act mentions afforestation includes regeneration of degraded forests and conservation of natural ones, it also mentions afforestation using plantation for timber. This Act has absolutely no mention of tribals and other forest dwellers, protection of their rights over their land and/or their involvement in the conservation process. Given the history, one can easily see how this Act will unfold - private parties grabbing land, forcing eviction of tribals from their land, planting single species of trees which will further destroy eco-systems and wildlife, and making profit by again cutting down these trees and selling them for timber.

Draft National Forest Policy – 2016: The MoEF had invited comments from public on this. But it took me one whole day of extensive search to find this draft hidden in one corner of the MoEF’s website rather than its home page. That in itself tells a tale. Because of a furore in media and elsewhere, the draft policy was quickly removed and a notice sent out that it was not ‘the’ draft policy and was put up on the site by mistake. Beautifully worded, the draft policy (in other words forest governance strategy) aims to give back all control of forest land to the Forest Department and divert forest land for plantation (forest industry) purposes again through a PPP model as mentioned in CAMPA. The interesting part of this ‘policy’ is that in all of its 40 pages, again there is not a SINGLE mention of tribals and other forest dwellers. As if these indigenous communities don’t exist in India.  

String all these together and you can see a pattern emerging – instead of putting actual efforts in protection and conservation of nature, the laws are being twisted to help grab/use more of our limited natural resources for business, making it easier for polluters and violators to continue, transform natural forests and other eco-systems into plantations, and not even acknowledge the existence of communities whose lives depend on forests and natural resources, so that they don’t get a chance to demand their rights.

If these changes are accepted, we are all set for not only an environmental crisis but also a human rights crisis as well.


PS: Two more laws have come up for revision as I write this – Wildlife Protection Act and Indian Forest Act. This might mean that even the Forest Conservation Act will be reviewed soon. 

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