The TSR Subramanian Committee’s report on overhauling environmental governance in India is a puzzling document. It correctly identifies environmental crises facing India and the lacunae in environmental regulations, monitoring and enforcement responsible. And goes on to outline a new architecture for clearing, monitoring and resolving disputes around projects. The report also makes, however, a set of standalone observations. Some of these are valid — like audits by independent experts to vet the forest department’s work. Others don’t seem to hold up. For instance, it says laws should be amended to ensure customs such as Nag Panchami, where cobras are caught and fed milk, are no longer prosecutable.
Belying the pessimism which surrounded its formation, a committee set up by the environment ministry has submitted a hard-hitting report. Among other things, the committee, headed by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian, has recommended that project approvals should be granted not by the environment ministry but by a new National Environment Management Authority (NEMA). It has also proposed that state pollution control boards (SPCBs) be merged into state-level equivalents of the NEMA and that, most importantly, they be made accountable to the Union government.
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.
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?