Unfortunately, the outlook is not better for 2022, when the government is busy encouraging ‘ease-of-doing business’ rather than going against the grain in environmental conservation.
The Ministry had a terrible hangover from introducing an amendment in the Environment Impact Assessment Act (EIA Act), in the year 2020. This was in the midst of pandemic induced lockdown. The Ministry tried to negotiate with the High Court for translation into 22 official languages’ for the first EIA halves of the year 2021.
The Ministry finally reached an agreement by the end of August 2021 and made the drafts available in all 22 languages in November. It claimed that it has received more than 155,000 responses.
The Ministry will make every effort to implement the proposed amendment within the stipulated time frame.
In July 2021, the MoEF&CC introduced a new standard of operation (SOP) for dealing with post-facto clearances of industrial projects that were not subject to prior EIA approval.
The second half 2021 saw a series or proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act. This was especially after Bhupender, a lawyer by training, assumed the charge of Minister.
Vikrant Tongad (founder of Social Action for Forests and Environment, SAFE), and activist who filed the petition for translations into 22 languages, stated that “the government is inching towards dilutionary laws.”
In October 2021, the most alarming development was a Consultation Paper that sought multiple amendments for the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980. The proposed amendment to the Coastal Zone Regulation Notification 2019 was quickly followed by the oil and natural gas exploration/development activities exempted from the need for mandatory prior clearances.
Yadav introduced two bills, one to amend the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 (WLPA), in December 2021.
All of these changes are suggested after natural disasters such the Chamoli glacier burst and high intensity cyclones and cloudburst induced floods took a large toll in the year 2021. This was despite the fact that climate change has not yet had an impact.
The environmentalist was not pleased that MoEF&CC and the two other ministries reached a consensus to grant green signals to seven hydropower projects in Uttarakhand’s higher reaches. This includes plans to clear large tracts of old Hasdeo Arand forests for mining. And last but not least, the cabinet approved the SPV for Ken Betwa Interlinking of Rivers, which has yet to receive certain statutory clearances.
Ranjan Panda, an Odisha water and climate change expert, stated: “I see the direction in which environmental legislations go where rules will be relaxed to clear more coal mining and hydropower projects without really addressing problems of forest destruction, decimation and erosion of freshwater ecosystems, and erosion of rights over resources being currently enjoyed and protected by local and Indigenous communities that are dependent upon these resources.”
These negative actions have far outweighed the few positive steps taken at the Ministry. The MoEF&CC has undertaken a Dolphins’ census, formulated an action plan for delineating elephant corridors, and given a major push to conservation of urban forests, wetlands, and urban forests.
What’s in store for 2022?
Tongad noted that it is difficult for individual officials to change their attitudes, which can lead to positive policy changes.
Rahul Choudhury (an environmental lawyer) is also co-founder at Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment. He stated that conservation was not on the agenda. None of these laws seem to indicate their intention or approach towards conservation.
Choudhary is concerned about the possibility of “some laws being modified through notification.” It will almost imply delegated legislative, which occurs at administrative levels.
Does this mean the laws would not face resistance? Does this mean that the laws will be passed as quickly as the government wants? Do we say good-bye to the environment?
Panda stated that the public consultation process has already been compromised, causing a significant damage to environmental conservation governance.
Experts pointed out that people don’t understand how to segregate waste at source when it comes to pollution.
Choudhary stated, “Other then legal, there may not have much resistance.” Environment, pollution, and forests are still not political issues. If these laws are passed, no constituency will be endangered. There is no other pressure.
Tongad however had a different opinion. “There will soon be Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and then the countdown to the 2024 General Elections begins. I don’t believe any significant changes will occur before them.