By Nivedita Kandekar
New Delhi, Dec 26 (IANS):A slew of amendments to foundational laws related the environment have been made or sought to make — all to the detriment of cause, if experts are to believe — and raised questions about the role of the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change in 2021.
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 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 2021.
The Ministry finally reached an agreement at the end of August 2021, and made available drafts in all 22 languages by November. According to the Ministry, it 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 established a new procedure for dealing post-facto with industrial projects operating without prior EIA approval.
The second half of 2021, especially after Bhupender Yadav (a lawyer by trade) took over as Minister, saw a series / proposed amendments, or in the case of Forest (Conservation Act, a note regarding the government’s intention of diluting the Forest Act to suit businesses.
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.”
The most worrying development came in October 2021 with a Consultation Paper requesting multiple amendments to 1980’s Forest (Conservation) Act. The proposed amendment of the Coastal Zone Regulation Notification 2019 sought to exempt oil-and-natural gas exploration and development activities, among other things.
Yadav introduced in December 2021 the Biological Diversity (Amendment) Bill, 2020, and another one to amend Wild Life (Protection) Act, 2002 (WLPA).
These changes are suggested when natural disasters like the Chamoli glacier Burst, high intensity Cyclones, and cloudburst-induced flooding have taken a significant toll in 2021, despite the impact of climate change.
Much to the dismay of the environmentalists, MoEF&CC, along with two other ministries, reached a consensus that seven hydropower projects could be approved in Uttarakhand’s higher reaches. The project would clear vast tracts of ancient Hasdeo Arand for mining. Last but not least, cabinet cleared the SPV to Ken Betwa Interlinking of Rivers which, among other projects, has not received 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, for example, has conducted a Dolphins’ Census, developed an action plan to delineate elephant corridors, and has given a huge push to conservation of urban forests and wetlands.
What’s in store for 2022?
Tongad noted that it is very difficult for individual officials to change their attitudes, which in turn can lead to positive policy change.
Rahul Choudhury is an environmental lawyer and co-founder of Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment. None of the laws seem able to demonstrate their conservation intent or approach.
Choudhary is concerned about the possibility of “some laws being modified through notification.” It will be almost like delegated legislation, which occurs at the administrative levels.
Does this mean the laws will be met with no resistance? Does that mean the laws would be passed as easily as the government wants them to? Do we say goodbye to the environment
Panda stated that public consultation processes have been weakened, which has caused a great deal of damage to the way that environmental conservation governance is done.
Experts said that there is still a lot to be done before people can condemn these laws.
Choudhary stated, “Other that legal, there may be little resistance.” The 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 had a different perspective. “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.