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Monthly Archives: March 2014

the environment ministry tries to weaken the proposed environment authority…

Tasked by the Supreme Court with creating a new and independent environment authority, the Ministry of Environment & Forests wants to retain its say in choosing the panel of experts to vet projects, a Cabinet note on the matter shows. This is a change from its earlier position, where the ministry said it would relinquish its powers in such appointments to avoid conflict of interest, and defeats the objective of having a truly independent regulator, says a senior government official…

i have been almost fully out of action for two weeks now. fell ill. still limping back to bloody full normalcy. anyway, here, one of the first stories i filed after getting back. an update on the proposed environment authority — i have been incorrectly calling it regulator till now.

ps – also see these stories on the env authority. one, a larger story on what the moef (ministry of environment and forests, india) proposes to create. and two, an indepth interview with utah university law prof william lockhart re the moef blueprint. this, incidentally, is an idea that has been doing the rounds for a while. the last time india tried to create one was in 2010. see these two stories on the proposed national environment protection authority (nepa) — one, and two. later, this became the national environment assessment and monitoring agency. and then, it went on the backburner before the SC dragged it out of oblivion. see this epw piece on neama by environment lawyer shibani ghosh.

 

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the follies of rushing in…

yesterday was profoundly anomalous. i filed two stories. both, as it were, on aadhaar. one on a sting by cobraport which flagged faulty enrolments. and the other where the supreme court said aadhaar cannot share its database with anyone without consent from the number holders.

this is a significant development. over the last five years, a clutch of government departments and private companies have been collecting biometrics with gusto. however, with the privacy bill still on the drawing board, India has seen biometric data get collected, by multiple agencies, without any laws governing their collection, use or retention.

see these links for more substantiation of the preceding sentence. one. two. three. in the process, the country has entered a world of new risks. without, sigh, getting the safeguards in place. which brings us to the dispute between the cbi and the uidai which culminated in this SC judgement. it is one kind of an outcome.

The SC ruling was in response to a 26 February, 2014 ruling by the Mumbai High Court directing the UIDAI to provide the CBI with biometrics of all residents of Goa. The High Court’s ruling was related to the rape of a seven year old in Vasco last January. The case was handed to the CBI which, as the Aadhaar appeal to the SC says, initially asked it for biometric information of “all the persons in the state. That request was modified and only the fingerprints of 3 specified persons were asked for.”

Later, the CBI dropped that request. Says the Aadhaar affidavit, “The CBI has now found a chance fingerprint and asked Aadhaar to compare its data and the biometric data provided by the CBI.” Aadhaar refused to share information citing two reasons. One, that such a move would violate privacy of the number-holders. And two, that its biometric database and deduplication systems are not designed for forensic inquiries. When its appeal was rejected by the HC, UIDAI appealed to the SC.

what are the protocols for the use of such data? as legal researcher usha ramanathan says in the article: “the idea that databases can be used by anyone makes people vulnerable, especially in a state where there is neither law nor much respect for law.”

the good news is that the SC verdict clarifies matters to some extent. but the country still needs a regime on privacy and data (including biometrics) protection.

old enrolment concerns resurface re aadhaar

Investigative journalism portal Cobrapost has aired videos of sting operations that allegedly show the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) conducting a flawed enrolment process that allows people from even neighbouring countries to get an Aadhaar number after paying bribes.

it is hard to escape a sense of deja vu. these complaints — about poor scrutiny, corruption in enrolment, lax overview — have doing the rounds for a long time. but, see them another way, in the light of the assurances given by uidai in 2012 about having fixed deficiencies in its enrolment system, and it is clear that not much has really changed.

on nandan nilekani’s stint with the upa…

out today, this quick and dirty story on nandan nilekani’s stint in upa2. it was a part of a larger package profiling some of the technocrats leaving office along with the upa — c rangarajan, montek singh ahluwalia, the member of the national advisory council, and nilekani.

on the environment regulator: an interview with william lockhart

ET just uploaded an interview with William Lockhart, Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Utah’s SJ Quinney College of Law, re the proposed contours of the environment regulator. Professor Lockhart has been studying the Indian environment clearance process for a long time — my 2006-07 thesis on the Environment Impact Assessment Notification had relied on his work to a large extent.

In this interview, he gets into detail on the environmental clearance process — where it stands today, what it needs to be, and what will have to change for India to start balancing environmental needs and developmental demands. Take a look. This interview gets into more detail than the story does.

Q: Take a closer look at this and one sees the possibility of creating a more robust environmental governance architecture here. The environment regulator, the functioning Green Tribunals, India’s well-established environmental laws. The big question, of course, is: whether we will go in that direction or not. What do you think?

A: The current proposals are barely responsive to the instinct you show above. There is absolutely no question in my mind that reform of the EIA/Clearance process is utterly critical to the preservation of India’s critical remaining human and natural habitats. But if possible, reform is even more important to any hopeful sense of India’s future as a responsibly self-governing democracy. At present, clearances of all sorts are being approved with minimal or no meaningful environmental review, under constant political pressure, in disregard of any credible understanding of the content or purposes of existing law, and on the basis of “future” compliance with “conditions” for post-clearance performance on matters that clearly are required by law to be assessed before — not after — clearance, and in any event remain almost wholly unenforced.

I like his point about the rule of law. Really, you can create however many institutions as you like. But without any desire to implement laws, the whole thing is just a bureaucratic exercise.

an update on the proposed environment regulator

India’s environmental clearance process is universally loathed. Industry and technocrats find it cumbersome and corrupt, and blame it for project delays and slowing growth. Environmentalists and project-affected people consider it superficial, corrupt and given to approving virtually all projects, unmindful of their social and environmental costs. Both views are correct. India’s environmental clearance (EC) process is a mess, unable to strike a balance between the demands of growth and the need to protect the ecological systems needed to support what will soon be the world’s most populous country.

William Lockhart , the emeritus professor of law at University of Utah’s SJ Quinney College of Law, has been studying India’s EC process for a long time, and he pans every part of it. “Clearances of all sorts are approved with minimal or no meaningful environmental review, under constant political pressure, on the basis of ‘future’ compliance with ‘conditions’ for post-clearance performance on matters that are required by law to be assessed before clearance, and in any event remain almost wholly unenforced.” That is the bad news.

The good news is this could change. On January 6, the country’s highest court, assessing the ministry of environment’s mechanism to appraise projects to be “not satisfactory”, directed it to set up by March 31 an independent regulator that would appraise, approve and monitor projects. A set of bureaucrats in the ministry is currently working on the architecture of the new regulator. But will this new architecture address the shortcomings that plague each of the four steps of the EC process?

and, here, my post on anomalocaris, my et blog, containing some stuff we could not accommodate in the final draft.

the sharad pawar interview

on the day the sharad pawar story appeared, we put this email interview with him online as well. take a look.

The press recently reported that you wanted a high subsidy (Rs.3,500/ton) for sugar exports. If Indian sugar is not globally competitive, why do we want to export it? If there is no domestic shortage of sugar and release the surplus irrigation water for other crops? Also, isn’t this decision in violation of WTO norms? Your comments.

There is excess availability of sugar over domestic demand. Inability to sell sugar had affected the capacity of industry to make payments to cane farmers. The export market was also not available due to lower global prices. Industry had therefore requested for incentives for sugar exports. A Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by me had been constituted to look into this demand. On the recommendation of the GoM, Government has approved export incentive of Rs.3,300/- per ton for raw sugar export.