The environment conundrum

For far too long, the protection of the environment has been viewed as a necessary evil and a regulatory requirement that needed to be circumvented in order to carry on with the more "important" activities involving economic growth. A large number of studies have been undertaken in the past few decades on strengthening the environmental clearance processes and enforcing environmental compliance. However, at the end of all such efforts the common lament reflected the failure of implementation.

The introduction of the public interest litigation (PIL) in the early 1980s was possibly a turning point for environmental protection with the early cases of success coming in the mid-1980s itself when mining operations in Uttar Pradesh were halted due to their adverse impact on the environment. However, it was the highly publicised case of M C Mehta vs the Union of India in 2001 around the issue of vehicular air pollution, resulting in the direction that all commercial vehicles switch to CNG, which brought the power of the issue (environment) and the instrument (PIL) to the fore.

In the command-and-control regime under which environmental impact assessments were undertaken and clearances provided, it was no surprise that allegations of corruption and compromise flew thick and fast. Things started coming to a head when the policies designed to fast-track investments and infrastructure development collided with the extremely slow-moving and alleged corruption ridden process of environmental approvals. Rumblings about the environment being a barrier to development have gathered momentum over the past few years culminating in a loud, public and embarrassing spat between several infrastructure ministries of the government of India and the ministry of environment and forests.

So, how does this resolve itself? Obviously the minister, Jairam Ramesh, is right when he says the environment ministry cannot just be a rubber stamp for the purposes of clearance. We fervently hope not. However, the ministry does need to streamline and accelerate its decision-making processes – a commitment that the minister made when he first assumed office. Several measures have been identified time and again for improving the effectiveness of the system – measures that are merely awaiting a commitment. High on the list is a system that would ensure that the consultants undertaking environmental impact assessments on behalf of project proponents are certified and graded on a periodic basis, with their grading reflecting their performance on previous assignments. Equally important, from a confidence building point of view, is to ensure that the conditions on which environmental clearances are provided are implemented and monitored effectively. Another key area of weakness that can be easily addressed related to the public hearing process. Several studies have shown the perfunctory treatment that this essential element of an environment impact assessment process receives and the consequent delays that arise due to public protests.

As such, while the environment minister is admirably fulfilling his duties towards the sector for which he has the charge, he has to demonstrate the scientific basis of his ministry’s actions and not let it be perceived as being unnecessarily obstructionist or viewed with suspicion. Going beyond current controversies relating to environmental clearances, ensuring environmental compliance on an ongoing basis will go a long way in enhancing the credibility of this institution. A recent PhD thesis from a student, Ritu Paliwal, at the Teri University, clearly brings out the lacunae in the existing systems and also brings out starkly the extremely low costs of non-compliance (penalties) as compared to the costs that have to be incurred by industry for complying with the provisions of the environmental management plans. Paliwal observes the lack of a clearly defined rationale in arriving at a value for penalties in the Indian system. On the basis of her literature survey, she identifies the key elements defining a penalty value to include beyond the statutory compliance penalty, a value that reflects the benefit accruing to industry from non-compliance as well as a reflection of the gravity of offence committed. Unless appropriate penalty systems are defined with proper escalation clauses, while at the same time addressing the issue of technical and managerial capacities of state pollution control boards, the ethos of indifference may continue.

India is poised to significantly internalise environmental considerations into development processes. The ministry of environment and forests must urgently and constructively engage with the development process to ensure this transition to sustainable development. The ministry should draw inspiration from the finding that India’s regulations and processes are at par, and in some case better, than those in the developed world. Where we fail in this sector, as in several other sectors of the economy, is in the implementation.

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