Text by Meghna Krishndas and Divya Karnad, photograph from Wikimedia Commons

To back up its strong electoral promises of vikas, the Modi government had promised to ease bureaucratic hurdles for development projects. Getting environmental clearances is one such hurdle that was allegedly slowing down the country’s economic growth. In his first few months at office, Prakash Javadekar, current Minister for Forests, Environment, and Climate change, acknowledged the legitimacy of environmental concerns, but underscored the need to support big-ticket growth projects in industry and infrastructure, and “fast-track” clearances, without elaborating its operational implications. The developments of the last few months perhaps hold an indication.

Forest clearances norms have been diluted. The new National Board for Wildlife has inadequate representation of experts and independent scientists — adhering to the letter of the law to make up the numbers, and completely missing its spirit of diversity, expertise, and dialogue. The National Green Tribunal, India’s pioneering and primary entity for dealing with environmental cases, is being reconsidered, jeopardising a crucial legal avenue for environmental grievances. Perhaps most worryingly, the government is now reviewing existing conservation laws to rewrite them for “current requirements”. Again, with no operational specification, the motivation and goals of this move remain unclear.

These are worrying trends for a time when India should be planning for long-term sustainability in the growth agenda, improve transparency in environmental governance, and increase protection for wildlife and biodiversity. Instead, we are dismantling existing frameworks of conservation.

Outlining the real problem

Our economic growth imperative needs resources to fuel the development juggernaut. In this context, the Environment Ministry’s push to clear a large number of development projects seems necessary. Growth gurus have said that it is anathema not to maximise use of a country’s resources for economic development, and efficiency is key.

One of the hallmarks of efficient resource extraction is minimal social and environmental impacts. We are a nation of a 1.25 billion people, with many still living in abysmal poverty. Many of our poorest people, and much of the agricultural sector (60 per cent of the workforce) still depend on natural resources like monsoon rains, rivers, soil, and forests for their livelihoods — which are likely to be compromised if we do not accommodate the downsides of the push for coal, minerals, hydropower, and heavy industry. As we are learning from developed nations, issues of water security, food, and climate will remain focal concerns, that won’t be solved merely with improved spending power.

Today’s growth models can no longer be like the past. There are two reasons for this. One, India’s economic expansion comes at a time when the world is already facing an environmental crisis, and issues of global proportions like climate change will indubitably affect us. We are looking at melting glaciers, rising sea levels, changing rainfall patterns, failing agriculture, drought, floods, and soil erosion. Some say that this burden of history should not disadvantage us when we have our shot at glory. But, we stand to lose much more in the long run by entrenching ourselves in a here-and-now mentality that neglects future costs.We have to consider alternatives to the classic growth-at-all-costs paradigm that pushes all environmental accounting for a far-away tomorrow.

Secondly, in many nations including India, fossil fuels and minerals like iron, manganese, and aluminium, lie under some of the last wilderness areas. These areas that are vital watersheds, carbon sinks, and home to other creatures that we share the planet with. Forests with majestic trees that are more than 500 years old, where tigers and elephants roam, which hold a plethora of ourbiodiversity. From butterflies to bears, frogs to falcons, lichens to leopards, these forests cradle over 400 million years of evolutionary history, but comprise little over 4 per cent of India’s land.

Ignoring these contemporary facts leads to opting a myopic, blinkered view of development, without accounting for long-term costs and consequences of environmental degradation, habitat loss, and species extinctions. Environmental legislations, and bodies like the Forest Advisory Committee, National Board for Wildlife, National Green Tribunal are necessary for attempting this balance and providing room for debate.

Critics of environmental laws often hark about a return to the license-permit raj with clearance requirements. Ramaswamy Iyer provided a great counter-argument to that stance, arguing that many clearances are stuck because applicants didn’t observe due process. Errors include failure to provide required documentation, giving inaccurate information, and non-compliance with legal requirements. Contrary to thinking that conservation is hamstringing development, over 95 per cent of all project applications have been unconditionally cleared in the past decade. Centre for Science and Environment’s data (2013) shows that over 700,000 hectares of forest have been cleared for coal and minerals in the last decade alone. These statistics are often glossed over by development pundits who cry foul over the need for forest and environmental clearances. As environmental laws are sidestepped with shocking disdain, one is forced to reckon with questions of the long-term needs of a larger populace that relies on water, soil, and climate services provided by forests, and the massive losses of habitat and biodiversity that comprises our natural heritage.

Questions for the long-term

The real issue is not that of environmental evaluations being an impediment, but of enhancing procedural clarity. The Supreme Court, identifying this problem via the Lafarge judgment, asked MoEF to streamline procedures. The goal was to set simpler, clearer guidelines for applicants, and establish independent authorities for objective assessment and monitoring to ensure compliance with environmental standards, and protect threatened wildlife and their habitats. It hasn’t been done yet. Setting up a transparent system of environmental and forest assessment that incorporates relevant independent experts free from bureaucratic interference, conflicts of interest, and potential for corruption, will go a long way in clearing the murky muddle of environmental decision-making.

Instead, we are playing tug of war between environment and economics. Perhaps because systemic change takes time, and economic growth is evaluated in short-term results. Or maybe national planning mirrors five-year election cycles. Anyway, the current developmental paradigm is treating natural resources as expendable — to be expropriated quickly and cheaply without accounting for social and environmental costs. It appears to be an ideological standpoint that views economic growth as a stand-alone objective, irrevocably entrenched in the here-and-now, without considering hidden costs of environmental degradation.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Choosing to protect our environment

We have the laws and constitutional mandate needed to protect India’s environment and wildlife. We also have legal bodies and a responsive judiciary to oversee compliance, and an active civil society that engages with these issues. Environmental issues are gaining more traction in the media, with many journalists actively following these topics and writing critical pieces. There is also a growing body of scientists trained in multiple subfields of ecology and conservation, who can work with the government. But to translate these positive points into systemic change, environmental issues have to remain a priority policy, and we need central and state governments to be sensitive to these issues.

The Supreme Court of India had stayed all clearances passed by the controversial NBWL, and asked the MoEF to reconstitute the body. The government was forced to adhere to the law. These developments underscore that frameworks for conservation exist in India. It is a question of implementation and improvement. But, the government has now circumvented legal requirements by filling the NBWL ranks with the required number, but a grossly inadequate geographic and disciplinary representation of experts. The Board is largely constituted of retired bureaucrats, with few experts who have a demonstrated track-record of academic or field excellence in conservation, and with a limited history of engagement with many of our pressing conservation issues, thus curtailing dissent.

Civil society has responded strongly to these events, asking for an equal playing field for environmental issues in the country’s policy sphere. Sadly, the government’s response to this has been defensive and dismissive. There has been no attempt by the Modi government to engage these valid concerns, maintaining tightly closed doors, and hiding behind rhetoric while circumventing pro-environment action. Now, the proposal to amend the five major conservation laws signals changes to meet “current requirements”. We have to wait and watch as to what the proposed amendments entail, and hope that this does not translate into compromised norms of environmental assessment, and an even smaller space for scientists and civil society to engage with the government.

The real ‘current requirement’

The Modi wave surfed home to a thumping parliamentary majority, unprecedented in the last two decades of India’s political history. There is an opportunity for strong positive decision making. But, also a possibility to override concerns that appear peripheral to the current government’s stated priorities. The trends for environmental governance so far look worrisome. Issues of transparency and accountability, and pervasive problems like graft and corruption, are a concern for conservation too. We need an efficient and clear system that objectively evaluates conservation impacts of development projects. It should uphold laws, quicken and strengthen review, and allow legal recourse for grievances. We need a space for dialogue that includes forests and wildlife as a legitimate concern in modern India, not unplanned development that compromises the nation’s long-term ecological security. Not, for sure, a dilution of existing laws and norms that were intended as constitutional safeguards against exploiting our natural heritage.

We live in a world of improved knowledge, technology, and scientific expertise; a world that is aware of the damaging consequences of ignoring environmental concerns, and is actively searching for solutions. We can benefit from this. India can set a new growth model that emphasises greater reliance on conserving watersheds and rivers, implement clean technology, create efficient systems of resource use and transmission that promote local self-reliance in energy and water, and provide for maximum conservation of biodiversity.

We submit that adequate water, clean air, good soils, and ecological diversity are values that are equally critical for a growing nation to incorporate. The time is ripe to plan for a more sustainable and long-term pattern of development. That is the real “current requirement”.

This article was published in The Tribune on 3rd October 2014 and can be accessed here.