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Friday’s Supreme Court notice dealt with a plea to create an Indian Environment Service similar to the Indian Forest Service. The plea seeks to implement the 2014 TSR Subramaniam report. The Union environment ministry has introduced a number of new policies based on the Committee report. These include accelerating the time it takes to grant environmental clearances, creating a single-window system for forest, coastal, and environment regulation clearance systems, and drafting an umbrella law that will manage the environment and cover the water, air, and environment protection laws. Although many of these policies have been criticized by legal and environmental experts, the Committee believes that they are necessary to balance development and environment needs. An explainer:

What is the TSR Subramaniam Report?

The Centre established a high-level committee in 2014 headed by TSR Subramaniam (ex-cabinet secretary), to review the laws and processes of the Environment ministry. Prakash Javadekar (then environment minister) praised the TSR Subramaniam report as a historic achievement that would balance development commitments with environment protection.

How will an Indian Environment Service contribute?

According to the report, the public sector (including the Central and State governments) and other quasi-official entities such as corporations, municipal boards and enforcement agencies, will need reliable expertise in the management and resolution of environmental issues.

The current approval and monitoring systems are inefficient, leading to poor management of environmental issues. An expert committee could review the entry qualifications and other details to recruit staff for the service. This would be in consultation with the MoEFCC and the department of personnel, training, and UPSC.

What was the recommendation of the committee?

The committee suggested that the country’s environmental and forest governance needs to be re-aligned with a series of process-oriented and structural changes. The committee recommended a new forestation policy to encourage investment in growing trees on private property; increasing the net present value for forests that is paid by project developers in lieu of forest diversion; creating inviolate areas in forests; single window clearance system for projects requiring environmental approval; proposed the establishment of a full-time expert body National Environmental Management Authority at the Centre and State Environmental Management Authority for project clearance; created a new concept for utmost goodness to be introduced through new legislation to ensure that the applicant for environmental clearance is legally responsible

What do environmental experts think about these recommendations and what can they say?

Most experts are very critical of the recent policy changes that have been made in response to the recommendations. The creation of dedicated environmental service or new legal frameworks, such as those suggested by the TSR report may not be able solve deeper problems in environmental decision making. The legal standards to protect the environment are being regularly lowered and institutions are now required to focus more on granting approvals than taking proactive measures to protect it. There is not much that new regulators or government departments can do in an environment where committees such as the TSR report recommend minimizing environmental scrutiny and relying on the best faith. Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research, stated that clear intent is the only way to protect the environment. This can only be done by integrating and upstreaming it into economic plans.

The notification of 2006 on Environment Impact Assessment outlines the timelines for granting environmental clearances. We are trying to meet these timelines and improve efficiency in all systems. I haven’t heard of an Indian Environment Service, but it is a large ministry that has many departments. According to a senior official in the environment ministry, these decisions will be made at government level.

Is the environment minister implementing the TSR Subramaniam Committee recommendations?

Most of the TSR Subramaniam recommendations have been implemented by the environment ministry. The ministry, for example, commissioned a private law firm in March to draft a new Environmental Management Act that will serve as an umbrella law for Air, Water, and Environmental Acts. The ministry published a consultation paper in October on amending the Forest Conservation Act 1980. This document aims to make significant changes in India’s forest governance, including the facilitation of private plantations for the harvesting, exploration, or extraction of oil or natural gas deep below forest land. The ministry is currently implementing a single-window clearance process for all clearances related to forest, wildlife, and coastal regulation zone. The ministry stated in December that the average time taken to grant environmental permits in all sectors has fallen from more than 150 days in 2019, to less then 90 days in 2021. The ministry also plans on ranking states based upon the speed at which they grant environmental clearances to development projects. The criteria for the ranking were detailed in an office memo sent by the ministry on January 17. It stated that they would give a star rating to states based on their ability to grant EC in a timely manner.

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