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. A number of new policies have been introduced by the Union environment minister based upon the Committee report. These include an acceleration in the time required to grant environmental clearances; the creation of a single-window environment and forest regulation clearance system, and the drafting of an umbrella environment management law that will combine the air, water, environment protection and other 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 study?
The Centre established a high-ranking committee in 2014 headed by TSR Subramaniam (ex-cabinet secretary), to review the laws and processes of the Environment ministry. Prakash Javadekar was the then environment minister and declared it a landmark achievement that would balance environmental protection and developmental commitments.
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 recommendations did the committee make?
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; a new concept for utmost goodness to be introduced through new legislation to ensure that the applicant for environmental clearance is legally responsible for his statements; a model umbrella law that will include the Air Act, Water Act, and EP Act; and the creation of an All India Service Indian Environment Service, among many other recommendations.
What can environmental experts say about these recommendations?
Experts are critical of recent policy changes 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 for protecting the environment are being lowered routinely and institutions are being asked to concentrate on granting approvals, rather than taking proactive steps 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 2006 Environment Impact Assessment notification outlines the timelines to grant environmental clearances. We are trying to adhere to those timelines and improve efficiency across all systems. I have not heard of the creation of an Indian Environment Service, but it is a very large ministry with many different departments. According to a senior official in the environment ministry, these decisions will be made at government level.
Are the TSR Subramaniam recommendations being implemented by the environment ministry?
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 that covers 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 and gas deep beneath forest land. In line with the recommendations of the Committee, the ministry is currently implementing a single-window clearance process for all clearances pertaining 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 plans to rank states based on how quickly they grant environmental clearances (EC), 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.