Riding hard on its promise of a better India, the BJP government has consistently spoken on creating ‘ease of doing business’. And the way to do this, the government seems to think, is by dissolving clearance regimes.
There is a little joke in environmental circles. Each World Environment Day, June 5, is celebrated by planting saplings – thousands upon thousands of them, accompanied by naming trees after ministers; children watering plants in school uniforms; and all-round applause. State government headlines often say “a million saplings were planted on World Environment Day”. This year, the campaign was for #SelfiewithSapling. Sadly, though, with June being one of the hottest months of the year, saplings often don’t survive. This leaves the term ‘mass sapling plantation’ as a euphemism for failed promises in environmentalist circles. And it is what every corporate, every godman, every state government will do to show its commitment to nature.
Riding hard on its promise of a better India, the BJP government has consistently spoken on creating ‘ease of doing business’ (so much so that it was included in a meeting of state environment ministers on environment protection in April 2015). The way to do this, the government seems to think, is by dissolving clearance regimes. The idea of environmental clearances as an obstruction for growth is an inheritance from Manmohan Singh’s times. During UPA II, environment minister Jairam Ramesh was called a ‘green terrorist’ while his successor Jayanthi Natarajan was accused of applying a ‘Jayanthi tax’ (accusations of unfair and arbitrary environmental clearances), and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi – while addressing industry heads – called the clearance system a ‘bottleneck’.
However, the BJP government is far ahead with these ideas. In just two years, it has brought forward a range of changes in environmental clearances, including an alteration of the policies, guidelines and legislations. The changes are wide-ranging:
- More than a hundred rivers will be converted to water-channels for cheap navigation;
- defence projects and linear projects are exempt from environmental clearances;
- changes proposed in the wetland rules stipulate that states can decide whatever they want to do with wetlands;
- minor mineral mining up to five hectares does not need clearance by state environmental authorities;
- 36 industries have been reclassified as ‘white’ and do not require environmental clearances from pollution control boards; and more.
The common thread in all of this is the dismantling of the need for environmental clearances. The question is: Will any of these dismantled systems be replaced by any form of robustness toward environmental protection? The answer thus far has been a firm ‘no’.
Environment minister Prakash Javadekar has been echoing Narendra Modi’s views of ‘balancing environment and growth’. In a first for Modi, he opened an international inter-ministerial meeting on tiger conservation this year speaking suavely on this ‘balance’. He said tiger conservation should become a priority for those sectors where it is not a goal. This is a strong and important message, but at the moment it seems it is also not heeded.
Weakening the ability of checks to protect the environment
In essence, the biggest change that we are witnessing is that a range of projects can be cleared without any checks. This includes linear projects like railway lines and highways, which cut into tiger reserves. One of the most high profile cases on ‘tiger versus highway’ is being heard in both the Bombay high court and the National Green Tribunal: on the expansion of National Highway 7 through the Kanha and Pench forest corridors. Significantly, the battle here is being fought by individuals, and the ‘prioritisation’ of tiger conservation, which Modi spoke about, is through NGT orders rather than through any institutional mechanisms.
“It is extremely worrying that office circulars and guidelines are being used for clearing a catena of projects, like simplified [procedures] for prospecting of minerals, deemed working permission to National Highways Authority of India, cutting trees for linear projects without stage II clearance; exemption to all power transmission lines, which was only for 220 kV earlier,” says Praveen Bhargav, who runs the conservation group Wildlife First.
With hundreds of kilometres of roads to be laid, and railways to be expanded with no environmental checks and balances, we are set for a drastic change in our landscapes. While environmental clearances were historically granted in any case, the stipulation of terms and conditions in the clearance are what helped the environment. These have been the basis of keeping ecological flows (the minimum level of water in a river or stream needed to sustain its ecology) in water channels, caps on number of trees cut, ways of finding environmental mitigation, etc.
And speaking of ecological flows, a new Waterways Act will support the creation of navigation channels in more than a hundred rivers without the ‘hindrance’ of environmental impact assessments. Environmentalists are concerned that this blunt approach will create channels devoid of biodiversity or ecology.
A similar ‘policy-based predictable regime’ has also been envisaged for mining and a range of industries classified as white, which includes renewable energy and bio-pesticides.
“Under the umbrella of ‘ease of business’, the entire edifice of environmental law is being systematically dismantled. Words and concepts such as ‘decentralisation’, ‘self-certification’, ‘policy-based predictable regimes’, civil liability (as opposed to criminal prosecution) are some of the terms used by the government to present an investor/market/business-friendly approach,” says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta. “One of the most problematic terms used by [Javadekar] is ‘policy-based predictable regime’. … it means that once the government takes a policy decision, there should be no challenge to [it], and the project developers and user agencies must have an assurance that their activities will proceed as planned without any legal and technical hurdles. This approach places policy above the rule of law and undermines the people’s voice in a democracy.”
It remains to be seen if the government will put in a new system to restore the damage it has caused. On the international front, the BJP government has been arguing for India’s carbon space and a right to grow. Modi has stressed a sort of revivalist, back-to-our-forefathers approach to tackle climate change, saying grandmothers used to thread needles in the moonlight, implying that sustainability is in our Indian bones. But while growing is our right, the ‘balance’ seems tilted against environmental precaution.
For the sake of a floral finish: During the Commonwealth Games in 2010 in Delhi, hundreds of potted plants were brought in to decorate the roads and city for the international event. Many pots ended up being stolen. This is the case with many events as well: flowering plants are transplanted in pots to beautify their surroundings. The plants often die and the pots get stolen after the event. One hopes the common wealth that is the environment does not go the same way in India.
Neha Sinha is a Delhi-based conservationist. She tweets at @nehaa_sinha.