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Haste makes waste

By swiftly overhauling environmental laws without adequate consultation, more damage is being caused to our cities and citizens.

With the 2014 general elections a stepping stone away, the government has gone into a hyperactive mode, proposing an overhaul in the country's environmental laws that govern its forests, fragile coasts, precious wildlife and manage the toxic levels of air pollution.

Once the proposed changes are finalised, they will become the cornerstone for India's environment sector for at least the next two decades. However, environmentalists point out that the changes appear to have been proposed in quick succession to avoid wider and detailed consultations among all stakeholders and also to speed up processes. They also allege that the proposed changes do not focus on protecting and conserving the environment but instead, are looking at making environmental laws easier for the growth of industries.

Tinkering with the country's green laws is not new. Since coming to power in May 2014, the government has implemented a series of environment law-related changes. However, it has not yet been able to initiate any big-ticket plans. With the general elections now scheduled to take place in first the half of 2019, the government has hit the gas to implement large-scale changes.

Land, water, and air

In October 2017, the government finalised the third National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-31) of India. The first such plan was adopted in 1983 and the second in 2002 which ended in 2016. This NWAP, along with three proposed action plans concerning forests, coasts, and air pollution, are critical for this government as together they will form the core of environmental regulation in the country and will be related to a majority of the developmental work planned by the government.

A set of major changes have been outlined in the draft National Forest Policy (NFP) 2018 which was unveiled by India's Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in March 2018. The ministry had sought comments on it from experts and all other stakeholders by April 14, 2018. The draft was criticised by activists who stated that the changes proposed are just an opening for the private sector to advance into the forestry sector. Once finalised, the policy will be significant for India's forests as it will be the overarching document for its management over the next 25-30 years. The latest draft is in line with the government's vision of having 33 per cent of India's total geographical area under forest and tree cover.

According to a senior official in the forest division of the MoEFCC, a range of responses have been received on the draft NFP 2018. "The suggestions, views, and recommendations are being examined and it will soon be finalised during the next couple of months. We will address all concerns raised," the official stated.

However, this is not the first attempt at updating the NFP as efforts towards it started soon after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government assumed power in May 2014. One version of the draft NFP was put online in 2016 but the government later backtracked and withdrew the draft.

"It is not the first time that environmental laws are being diluted. There has been a consistent endeavour by the government to weaken the green laws in recent years. The draft national forest policy 2018 is nothing but a repackaged form of the changes proposed earlier for opening up the forests for the private sector. Those changes were vociferously opposed, but now the government is again trying for privatisation of forests through the new national forest policy," said Tushar Dash, forest rights expert and activist working with tribals and forest dwellers in Odisha.

Besides forests, India's 7,500-kilometre coastline is also staring at a complete makeover with the government looking at replacing the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification 2011. The environment ministry had made public the draft CRZ notification 2018 in April this year, giving all interested stakeholders 60 days to submit their suggestions.

According to environmentalists, the latest draft CRZ Notification 2018, proposes to open up the coastline for industry, real estate and tourism rather than protecting it. However, it doesn't come as a surprise to many as the changes proposed are crucial to the government's flagship programmes of Sagarmala and Housing for All.

Environmentalists who have been closely tracking the changes being made by the government argue that it is not just the extensive changes that are being carried out that are a concern, but the government has also been amending rules without public consultation, in the name of public interest.

The case of Indian government's first National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) has been similar. The proposed national action programme to tackle toxic levels of air pollution across nearly all major Indian cities, as well as rural areas, was finally unveiled in April 2018 after years of hue and cry. Comments were sought on it by May 17. Though a good start, experts have called it a toothless and directionless plan as it sets no targets for reducing pollution from the cities.

Why this haste?

Senior environmental lawyer in the Supreme Court of India, Sanjay Upadhyay, cautioned against haste. "Make haste slowly. We are dealing with the environment which is not a creation of man but a gift to the earth. So, any reform which has implications on the environment has to be thought through carefully and not in a hurried fashion. More importantly, the people who understand the sector on the ground need to be involved," said Upadhyay. IANS

(In arrangement with Mongabay.com, a source for environmental news reporting and analysis. The views expressed in the article are those of Mongabay.com)

Mayank Aggarwal

Mayank Aggarwal

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