Good growth needs better regulation

By Sunita Narain
Published: Saturday 15 October 2005

It is said everyone, from the Prime Minister downwards, is concerned with the process of environmental clearances: the process takes too much time, it is cumbersome and impedes the breakneck speed of progress. This week, the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) has made public its reworked proposals for environmental impact assessment and clearances.

If this process is not rigorous or reliable it is bound to impinge on growth. The people who are affected by a bad industrial project -- because it pollutes their water or land or displaces them without compensation -- will protest. They will go to court. The democratic framework of the country will assist them to get justice. The protest will hold up the project. Again, if a project leads to environmental damage -- destroys forest ecosystems, biodiversity gene pools -- environmentalists will protest. Again, a project will be embroiled in controversy and get delayed. An abused process will lead to abused outcomes: in the interest of none.

In other words, this regulation and its implementation is critical not because it will streamline project clearances but because it will build a process of development less contested and more inclusive.

m o ef has accepted this to an extent in its revised proposals. The current notification, unlike the earlier draft, does not weaken the provisions for public consultations by making the project proponent responsible for holding the public consultation. It also requires the proceedings of the public meeting -- "held to ascertain the views of the local persons who have a plausible material stake in the environmental impact of the project" -- to be filmed. The provision should help, if done well, to expose sham hearings and violence against people who attend the public hearing and face the wrath of industry goons and obdurate administrations.

The notification also pushes for more transparency, ensuring the environmental impact assessment, once revised to take into account people's concerns, is made public. This will help people judge if their involvement led to any change in the project design and how. The notification also asks for compliance reports to be submitted by the project developers and makes this document public as well. Again, this will allow people to ensure changes done to take into account their concerns have been implemented and how.

But some flaws emasculate the notification. Two stages are crucial in this regulation. One concerns the integrity of the information, which assesses the environmental impact of the project. This information is supplied by industry, which awards this work to a consultant. The fact is that industry has worked overtime to abuse this crucial stage. So, it is well understood that the consultant is hired not to assess the project but to get it 'cleared'. The result is that few will respect the environmental impact assessment document.

To be fair, perhaps little can be done here. After all, the onus here lies with industry, which cries hoarse about its high transaction costs (read corruption) not to subvert the process. But what can be done is to ensure that the information supplied is comprehensive, well structured and its analysis made public. This has been attempted to an extent. What can be done is further ensure that badly done and false assessments are penalised: the project proponent/consultant is publicly named and shamed.

The second crucial stage concerns public consultation. This is really the make-or-break of any regulatory process. Unfortunately, it is here that we fatally err. The current notification does not go far enough to improve the process of public consultation, so that it is fair, ensures involvement and takes into account the views of people, not as a matter of chance but as mandatory provisions. It is not enough to hear people. It is vital to ensure they are heard.

Let us be clear, Indian industry cannot find shortcuts to democracy. People have to be reassured that their concerns have been taken on board. They have to be convinced that the industry and government can answer their questions: that their survival and their environment will not be jeopardised.

Let us also be clear that this is not an academic quest for them. The process of impoverishment in India is exacerbated by environmental degradation. In fact, poverty and environmental destruction are two sides of the same coin. This is because, in India, people live on the environment. Their very survival is at stake if the environment -- the land or the water -- is contaminated or their forests or waterbodies destroyed. We cannot afford bad environmental management because it will not lead to progress. But the reverse.

So it is we must strengthen the process, turn it into an audit. It must be done not to 'clear' a project, but to substantially review and revise it so that affected people and concerned citizens know the project is for the benefit of all, and not for the greedy sake of some.

It is here the notification needs reworking. It must get rid of its categorisation of people -- who can ask questions, who not. It must welcome scrutiny. It must also support knowledge based critiques -- by funding open research on the projects, by opening schools that teach people the science of environmental impact assessment. It must push the concerns of people as its concerns.

Ultimately, the regulatory process cannot be about lynching democracy. It must become the lynchpin of democracy and development.

Because we strongly believe that the process of decision making, if flawed, will not be good either for development or for democracy.

-- Sunita Narain

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