Since 1974, every year June 5 is celebrated as the World Environment Day. It is a major event of United Nations where the primary focus is advocating environmental actions and the need of protecting our planet. This year the World Environment Day was jointly hosted by Colombia and Germany with the theme of ‘Time for Nature’ – a call to action to combat the accelerating loss of species and degradation of natural world.
Amid the pandemic, while the world was wondering whether the pandemic is a fallout of over-exploitation of the environment, the Environment Ministry took some major steps which shows the apathetic attitude of the ministry. The article evaluates the recent measures taken by the MoEFCC and compares it to the mandated objectives of the ministry.
In India, multiple initiatives were taken up for conserving wildlife amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide lockdown that began on March 25. However, despite adoption of several programmes and community feeding initiatives, a number of questions were raised by the experts on whether the country was really following the adopted theme of the World Environment Day in letter and spirit. These questions were raised in the backdrop of curious policy decision being taken up by the Union Environment Ministry. While on the one hand several large infrastructure projects across the country were given approval by hosting video meetings of its expert panels, at the same time norms which define environment impact in India were diluted. To make matters worse a massive restructuring plan is being considered by the Ministry which would certainly weaken the last frontiers in wildlife conservation, the organisations like National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the Forest Survey of India (FSI) etc.
The Curious Case of the Environment Ministry
Amid the health emergency, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) approved 34 mining, infrastructure and commercial projects which were directly or indirectly related to wildlife sanctuaries and reserves. The move by the organisation is preposterous considering that NBWL had not met in the past six years. The policy decision and clearances are issued by the Standing Committee of NBWL which suddenly decided to host its first ever meeting through video conference in early April.
Among various other projects, the significant ones include – construction of a highway in Goa that passes through the Mollem Wildlife Sanctuary; construction of Mumbai-Nagpur superhighway which will pass through 48 villages and require felling of 32000 trees; construction of a railway bridge in Madhya Pradesh and Telangana which passes through Kawal tiger corridor; the Etalin hydropower project (3097MW) in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley which will involve clearing of rainforest (more than 250000 tress will be cut down); the clearing of the Nallamala forests in Telangana for uranium exploration; a 2400 MW coal power plant in Odisha’s Talabira where objections against expanding of coal mines were raised by the Adivasis; and the expansion and renovation of the existing Parliament building at a cost of Rs 922 crore.
For projects to get environmental clearance a nod from expert panels is necessary. The expert panels, the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL), the Forest Advisory Committee and 10 Expert Appraisal Committees either recommend or reject these projects, but the final decision is taken by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
Video Conferencing and Environmental Clearances
The Wildlife Protection Act 1972, under which the National Board for Wildlife functions, does not provide anything with respect to video conferences or virtual meetings. According to the rules, it is mentioned that the committee should meet but there is no specific exemption mentioned that they might not meet or if they can take decisions by video meeting. In fact, there is not even a single provision for video conferencing among the laws governing the environment clearances. Instead, there are such provisions where hard copies of project maps and reports have been made mandatory through the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification. The EIA notification governs how to evaluate the threat posed by the large infrastructural project to the environment. One obvious reason why there has been no mention of video conferencing is the necessity of having detailed deliberations and face-to-face interactions with affected people and scientists.
Moreover, it is very hard to scrutinise a map and pinpoint the exact location of a proposed project in a video meeting. Due to lockdown, field visits or on-site scrutiny were not possible and affected people from the large projects were unable to send any evidence or representations or documents citing the ill-effect of the projects. In other words, the verification of the projects is entirely depended on the reports and documentations submitted by the project developers, who are known to submit fraudulent documents.The video conference, coordinated by the National Information Centre, allotted just two hours for each meeting. Because of the short and limited allotted time, as less as 10 minutes were given to each project. In normal circumstances, analysing and evaluating various impacts of a project followed by decision to give clearance or not takes an entire day. Now, due to limited time in the virtual meet, officials were not questioned for clarification, and in-depth analysis putting more emphasis on the constraints and grievances was not possible.
While on the one hand the MoEFCC diluted the processes to get clearances, on the other hand it also eased the norms. The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020, which replaced EIA notification 2006, reduced the time provided to people for raising objections from 30 days to a minimum of 20 days and public-hearing process to be wrapped up within 40 days, as opposed to the existing norm of 45 days. In addition to this, the absurd release of the notification amid nationwide lockdown highlights an apathetic attitude of MoEFCC as it has several dangerous loopholes like – firstly, public hearings are no longer mandatory for several projects as it seems from the manner through which clearances of 34 projects were considered. Secondly, easing of project expansion rules; and thirdly, weakening the public consultation process that eases the wrongdoings by the industry.
The environment ministry has also considered merging of 10 regional offices of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), and 19 centres of the Forest Survey of India (FSI), National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) and Central Zoo Authority (CZA) into just 19 regional offices of the Ministry. The reason given for this major restructuring is ensuring better coordination and improving efficiency.
The organisations being merged perform different functions- forest management, species conservation, enforcement and research. It is unclear, how merging of organisations with disparate functions and objectives would bring efficiency and transparency. Further, it would also lead to multiple apexes for these organisations like the NTCA regional office would have to report to both the Deputy Director-General of MoEFCC regional offices and also to the Member Secretary of NTCA in new Delhi.
Considering the various moves taken by the MoEFCC, it has become imperative to understand the objectives of the Ministry.
MoEFCC and Its Objectives
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is a nodal organization in the administrative framework of the Central Government of India for the promotion, planning, co-ordinating and supervising the implementation of environmental and forestry programmes and policies. It primarily focuses on conservation of country’s natural resources that includes its biodiversity, forests, lakes and rivers, protection and welfare of wildlife and prevention and abatement of pollution. Moreover, the ministry also pays substantial attention to the principles of sustainable development and enhancement of human well-being while implementing the programmes and policies. Its comprehensive objectives are:
- Conducting surveys and conserving the flora, fauna, forests & wildlife;
- Control and prevention of pollution;
- Protecting the environment and its rich biodiversity;
- Ensuring animal welfare.
The recent events related to the clearances of the massive infrastructural projects which seem to harm the environment more than bringing in positive impact on the society raises questions on whether the MoEFCC is actually able to carry out its objectives. The Supreme Court of India had previously ordered the MoEFCC to strictly comply with the guidelines of Lafarge judgement of 2011 that speaks of tightening the clearance process. Astonishingly, the MoEFCC is clearly ignoring these key guidelines by easing the clearance process and acting as a facilitator in environment degradation rather than being its protector.
Connecting the Dots
Here, it would not be wrong to suggest that development is necessary for a nation. However, the Indian economy is not in the best of shape. Unemployment increasing multi-folds, faltering manufacturing sector, agricultural sector in a perpetual decline are some of the major challenges the Indian economy is facing. Add to this the already existing poverty and other such challenges in the country. It would not be wrong to highlight here that large scale conservation measures such as those taken in India costs in millions. And like a vicious circle, such costs can only be covered if there is development and the economy is functioning efficiently.
At the same time, the present global situation set by the coronavirus pandemic is a blaring warning for humans to mend its ways before its too late. Humans have taken nature for granted and exploited its resources like there is no tomorrow. The Earth Overshoot Day which marks the day when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year has been receding every year.
The government’s decision of providing clearances to the project depicts its incapacity in joining the dots. It is allowing environment disaster and depletion of natural resources in the name of development. The most absurd and worrisome aspect of taking these critical decisions during the pandemic is that the government might be thinking approving such large infrastructural project will help battle the social and economic fallout of COVID-19. This economic slowdown could have been used as an opportunity to optimise the use of existing resources but what is being seen is that the pandemic is being used as an excuse to dilute environmental regulations. The government must apprehend that opening up protected areas or clearing up forest areas and taking nature for granted will choke the cities with pollution and diseases apart from loss of wildlife that will certainly bring an adverse impact on the ecological balance and biodiversity of the country. Infrastructural projects are necessary for country’s development, but such decisions should consider the impact on the environment, or else the present pandemic might just be the beginning of the nature’s wrath.