Mr Environment Minister, India is carrying out deforestation, not reforestation

On Wednesday morning, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar gave India one more reason to think of him as among the country’s worst environment ministers till date.

As the Indian Express reported, the minister sent out an intra-ministry letter on July 16 asking bureaucrats to replace the term “diversion” of forest land with “reforestation” in their communications. When asked about this, Javadekar told the Express: “For every diversion of forest land for a project… compensatory afforestation on equal area of non-forest land is a must. So ultimately, it is reforestation only. This is all about thinking positive and using the right expression.”

The power of positive thinking apart, what Javadekar said is wrong. Compensatory afforestation is not working in India.

india’s coal boom and attendant air quality fears…

a closer look at the tsr subramanian committee report

scroll down and you will see another story on the report. on its proposal for better monitoring. see that too.

can self-certification control emissions?

A high-level committee headed by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian has, among other things, proposed a radical overhaul of how India ensures compliance with environmental clearances. Arguing that the present system, built around physical inspection by government employees, has created a rent-seeking ‘inspector raj’, the committee — which was set up by the government to review environment-related laws — has proposed an “utmost good faith clause”… In both environmental and industry circles, there is scepticism about the proposal.

The good faith clause is built on the assumption that industry will provide data which might be used against it. In this story, I argue the system will, ergo, get gamed.

Why people fretting about Delhi’s low air quality are missing the bigger picture

In May this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that Delhi’s air quality is the worst in the world. In the months that followed this perception about Delhi’s air has strengthened further as winter smog set in the capital. This perception, however, could be incorrect. Air quality of other Indian cities and towns could be worse than Delhi’s. That is because the air quality information being generated by the state and central pollution control boards is badly flawed, and we don’t have credible information about air quality in any place other than the capital.

on the tsr subramanian committee report

On India’s air monitoring during Diwali

An updated version of the air quality story

today’s et carries an updated version of the air quality story published yesterday — the story got reworked once i got the cpcb’s answers. as things stand, its answers resolved some of the questions in the previous avatar of the story and triggered newer ones. do take a look. and, here, the q&a with the cpcb on the air quality index.

all this is a followup to a story that appeared about ten days ago — on why india’s air quality data is garbage. you must see that.

On the proposed Air Quality Index (and flaws therein)

About six days ago, India released a draft Air Quality Index. The idea is unexceptionable. The Index seeks to make air quality more easily comprehensible by reporting air quality not as dry numbers of raw concentrations but as colour-coded assessments of health impacts — good, moderate, poor, very poor, hazardous, etc. In this story out today, I argue, however, that for the index to be useful, fundamental problems in air quality assessments need to be fixed first.

This story, as things stand, is a followup to another story on air quality published about ten days ago. You need to, if you haven’t already, read the first one. Its PDF and, here, a link.

ps: Yesterday was diwali. And, while surfing to see how air quality was faring, I saw some eye-popping numbers. See these.

numbers from the civil lines air quality station, run by the delhi pollution control committee, as of 2215 hrs, yesterday. pm10 at 1000 (safety limit: 100). pm 2.5 at 995 (safety limit: 60). shortly afterwards, pm 2.5 climbed close to 1000 as well, reaching 999.85.

numbers from the civil lines air quality station, run by the delhi pollution control committee, as of 2215 hrs, yesterday. pm10 at 1000 (safety limit: 100). pm 2.5 at 995 (safety limit: 60). shortly afterwards, pm 2.5 climbed close to 1000 as well, reaching 999.85.

look at this chart. the way pm10 levels max out at 1000 suggests that the sensor might be set up to capture levels only till 1000 micrograms/cu m (understandably, given the safe limit is 60). i wonder what was the real extent of particulate pollution yesterday.

look at this chart. the way pm10 levels max out at 1000 suggests that the sensor might be set up to capture levels only till 1000 micrograms/cu m (understandably, given the safe limit is 60). i wonder what was the real extent of particulate pollution yesterday.

i have a fairly high degree of comfort with dpcc data. less so with the cpcb and spcbs. the cpcb, last night, was ridiculous. its sites were presenting allegedly realtime data for 2013 for parts of delhi. as for the spcbs, most of them were well below delhi. but one number from ahmedabad really made me sit up. look at pm2.5.

i have a fairly high degree of comfort with dpcc data. less so with the cpcb and spcbs. the cpcb, last night, was ridiculous. its sites were presenting allegedly realtime data for 2013 for parts of delhi. as for the spcbs, most of them were well below delhi. but one number from ahmedabad really made me sit up. look at pm2.5.

Why India’s numbers on air quality cannot be trusted

For some time now, India has been putting out her air quality numbers. Visit the website of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) or the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) and you will find them. In the odd city, you will see LED displays giving real-time updates on air quality in the city. How accurate are these numbers?

Not very. To know why, click here. A PDF of the superb page my colleagues designed. And here, a link to the story.

on the national tiger conservation authority and its strange disdain for laws…

today’s ET has this story on the NTCA — the national tiger conservation authority.

“On July 9, India’s ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) issued an intriguing circular. It sought candidates for an apex position in tiger conservation — additional director general (Project Tiger) and member secretary at the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) — both roles being performed by one person. The qualifying parameters were strangely specific: Only “IFS (Indian Forest Service) officers of 1979 to 1982 batches are eligible”.”

take a closer look and all manner of other irregularities become evident — mostly around the NTCA pretending to do good work even as it mainly gets used to house a clutch of handpicked mandarins. needless to say, the brunt of these decisions is borne by the country’s already lacerated biodiversity. which is then hidden by cooking up biodiversity numbers.

ps – while working on the story, i was again struck by how unaccountable the moef is. the environment secy, rajesh gopal, prakash javadekar, none of them responded to our questions. i find myself marvelling anew at the berks.

modi sarkar and its env/dev record

and then, there is this story on its environmental track record till now.

If environment minister Prakash Javadekar’s tweets are anything to go by, India is treading a fine balance between development and environmental protection. For instance, on May 31, shortly after taking charge at Paryavaran Bhawan, he tweeted: “The government believes in #environment and #development, and not environment vs development.” However, a look at the ministry’s major decisions between then and now suggests that in the NDA, much like the UPA, the conflict is real.

on the quantum of natural forests in india

India has no more than 3.3 lakh sq kms of land under real forests, less than half the number claimed by the environment ministry in the 2013 forest survey released last week.

for the longest time, india’s environment ministry has been claiming india is adding forests, not losing them. this assertion, as a bunch of academics have argued, is built around increasingly lax definitions re what qualifies as a forests. this old article describes their concerns. the good news is that the forest survey of india, which conducts these biennial forest surveys, has vastly improved its methodology in its latest report. what it found echoes what many have felt — but the state has denied — for a long while. india’s natural forests are in steep decline. and now stand at less than half of what the government claims as forest cover.

on what it will take to clean the ganga

Till now, India has followed a relatively simple approach to clean up the Ganga—or, for that matter, any of its rivers. It has acted on the assumption that preventing pollution is sufficient to restore the river. Accordingly, India has been setting up effluent and sewage treatment plants, which clean up waste water before releasing it, along rivers like the Ganga. The outcomes of the Rs 20,000 crore spent shows this approach has not worked.

this is a very quick and dirty story. it was done in less than a day. but even the secondary research shows the shambles environmental governance in india is in. for one, there is hardly correlation between the size of the problem and the env gov architecture’s response.  it is almost as though the two are existing independently of each other. for that and more, see the story.

ps – till now, i have linked to the online version of my stories in the et website. this is the first time i am linking instead to the pdf. if you want a link to the onlive ver of the story, click here.

 

the strange case of the missing 2013 forest cover report

A crucial appointment and general elections have delayed the biennial government report on the state of Indian forests. This report, which was due in 2013, was first delayed because the Forest Survey of India (FSI), which conducts the survey, was headless for six months. And then, the ministry of environment held back the report, citing elections and Election Commission approval.

While the ministry plays down the delay — just a few months, I was told — this story argues that any delay has significant impacts, and that this latest instance of indifference only underscores the urgency to overhaul how India calculates — and vastly over-estimates — her forest cover.

the greens step in

Even as the ministry of environment met its March 31 deadline to submit a plan to the Supreme Court for a new environment regulator, a set of academics, activists and environmental lawyers have weighed in with their own design. Concerned that the ministry version “would not meet the minimum standards of an independent regulatory authority”, this set, called Watchdog and Action Group for the Environment, have proposed an authority that has greater powers and independence than the design proposed by the environment ministry.

this latest development is a good one. some of the suggestions this group makes are very good. more than that, this is one step towards broadening and deepening the debate on the sort of environment authority india should have.

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.

 

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 expert non-appraisal committee

Monday’s order by the Gujarat High Court directing 12 units in the Mundra SEZ of the Adani Group to temporarily stop operations till the SEZ receives an environmental clearance is yet another indictment of the environment and forest ministry. The order, besides hauling up the Adani Group for allotting land to companies even before obtaining an environmental clearance for its SEZ complex at Mundra, highlights the ministry’s poor scrutiny of the project.

the rot in india’s environmental governance continues to astound.

india’s quest for an independent environment regulator

After the Supreme Court ruling on Monday, it is now clear that India will soon have an independent environmental regulator. What is less clear is whether this regulator will be a watchdog with teeth or without…

in this story, i argue that since “environmental clearances can be a source of political rent, it is important to delink the new regulator – in aspects like staffing and funding — from political pressures”. also see these two older stories (one and two) written four years ago — when i had just joined et — about this idea to create an env regulator. an idea that went on the backburner once jayanthi natarajan came to the ministry.

in which the environment ministry decides to ignore its own laws…

By slapping a Rs 200-crore penalty on the Adani Group for environmental violations, the ministry of environment and forests may be breaking its own laws, say environmental lawyers. According to Delhi-based environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta, the two laws that define the penal framework for such violations — the Environment Protection Act (EPA) and the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) — don’t give the ministry the powers to levy a fine. “They empower the ministry to start criminal prosecution in a court and to cancel an environmental clearance,” he says. “There is nothing in the laws giving the ministry any power to levy such a penalty.”

one of the defining traits of the upa regime has been its opportunistic relationship with the rule of law. this story, out today, again highlights that tendency.

the ministry of apathy

Take what will happen to the Lohit, which flows out of Arunachal and into the Brahmaputra, when the Lower Demwe Hydro Electric Project on it switches on. According to the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) report, the Lohit’s flow is around 463 cubic metres per second (cumecs) in winter, 832 cumecs in summer and 2,050 in the rains. (A three cumecs flow is akin to a Tata Nano passing you every second.)

This will change once the dam comes up. For up to 20 hours a day, says the report, the dam will trap the river, releasing just 35 cumecs of water. The remaining will be released to spin the turbines only when demand for electricity rises in the evening. At that time, the river’s flow will expand to 1,729 cumecs. As the reservoir empties out, the river will again shrink to 35 cumecs. This is palpably new. River flows ebb and rise over months. “But now, what was an annual variation will now be a daily variation,” says MD Madhusudan, a biologist with Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation.

It is safe to say that the Arunachal Pradesh government has signed MoUs without bothering about the accompanying environmental costs of these projects. However, what is striking is that even the central environment ministry, the exalted MoEF, is indifferent to these fallouts. In today’s story, after a brief overview to the environmental fallouts of these projects, we talk to a senior member of the hydel EAC (Expert Appraisal Committee, the body which clears hydel projects) to understand why these projects are not getting the scrutiny they deserve.

on rising murmurs of rent seeking in india’s environment ministry

while working on the coal and hydel stories (the latter is yet to be published), i kept hearing about rising corruption in the environment ministry. some of those conversations found their way into a story in today’s ET, by my colleagues soma, urmi and me, on why the environment ministry and environment minister jayanthi natarajan are facing flak for project delays. see the story here.

is the environment ministry responsible for the shortfall in coal production?

a red letter day. i had two stories in the paper today. the first explored a rather curious contradiction. all this time, we have been hearing that the environment ministry has been diluting environment and forest clearance processes and clearing every project that hoves into sight. at the same time, there is this insistence by indian industry that environment and forest clearances take forever to come through. that, sometimes, they do not come through at all.

this latter assertion is being repeated loudly once again now — that the real reason for coal shortages in india is the environment ministry. this is a tad worrying. for, as you know, india’s forests are in a bad shape. See the attached PDF on how India is fudging forest stats. also, in the runup to the redrafting of india’s environmental impact assessment notification, one had heard similar refrains, resulting in a overhaul of the environmental clearance process in 2006. today, six years later, the same complaints are being made all over again. which is strange: has nothing changed at all in all this time?

today’s story examines this contradiction, principally by parsing a spreadsheet ET got from the MoEF. this is a list of all projects that applied for forest clearances for their coal blocks between 1982 and now. it is a striking document. it suggests that coal approvals have indeed been high. it also suggests, on the back of some rough calculation, that the rate at which forest clearances for coal blocks have come through has been speeding up.

what does this mean? is the ministry data wrong? are projects getting stuck at the state/central government level? are companies complaining about env and forest clearances purely to get them diluted further? or, in a country where most coal blocks have not moved into production, are companies using the environment ministry as an excuse to hold onto coal reserves for as long as possible? some other reason?

The Great Forest Cover-Up

In February, the latest instalment of a little environmental kabuki played out when the Forest Survey of India (FSI) released its biennial report card of forests. It declared India’s forests were in fine fettle, with a net addition of 1,128 sq km, or 0.16%, in the last two years.
At 692,000 sq km, forests covered 23% of India’s land, and were directionally headed to reach the targeted 33%. What the Dehradun-based FSI did not declare, and tucked it away in definitions and methodologies, is how it computed that number. Take the very definition of ‘forest cover’ it has used since 2001. The FSI breaks up land into 1-hectare plots (100 metres by 100 metres) and looks at their satellite images. If tree canopy covers more than 10% of a 1-hectare plot, the FSI classifies it as a forest, regardless of who owns it, for what purpose and what kind of trees it has.

1n 2006, there was a large outcry when we realised that the environment ministry had been fibbing about tiger numbers. Well, something similar is happening with India’s forests as well. The definition that the FSI follows is so expansive that it counts tea and coffee plantations, orchards, parks and timber plantations, among others, as forests. At a time when forests are under increasing pressure, this definition (and previous methodological alterations) have enabled india’s forest establishment to claim India’s forest cover is rising. The complete story here. A PDF of the page, here.

on forest diversions

The government plans to make the diversion of forest land for industrial, development or mining projects more predictable by adopting a ‘Go, No Go’ style classification for forests on the basis of their ecological value. A group of ministers (GoM) on measures to tackle corruption has approved a clean-up act in forest clearances that would make acquiring such land a tad costlier, but easier.

the whole story by my colleague vikas, with some inputs from me, here.

NC Saxena committee says “No!”

It’s very easy to mine in this country once you take the consent of the local communities. They are rational people. If the project is beneficial for them, they will agree. But, look at the development tribals get from these projects. Local communities get less than 5% of the jobs created by these projects. In the last 30-40 years, people displaced by projects have become destitute, not better off. The men have become rickshaw-pullers and the women have become sex workers. Is this what we mean by mainstreaming them? Industry should sit down and think about why its image is so poor.

National Advisory Council member and former bureaucrat N C Saxena headed the four member panel set up by Jairam Ramesh shortly after the PMO put pressure on the ministry to clear the project. In this short interview, he talks about why his report recommends Orissa Mining Corporation (the company that was to supply bauxite ore to Vedanta’s Lanjigarh plant) should not be permitted to mine on Niyamgiri hill. Excerpts.

Enter, NEPA

The environment ministry will, in the coming monsoon session, place a Bill for creating the National Environment Protection Authority (Nepa), an authority modelled on the lines of the US Environmental Protection Agency. What is less clear is whether this body will be a powerful watchdog, or a toothless old hound.

environmental governance in India has been in shambles forever. shortly after taking charge, environment minister jairam ramesh announced that the country would set up a National Environment Protection Agency, along much the same lines as the US’ Environment Protection Agency. In January this year, the Economic Times published this update on how the NEPA was coming along.