NDA v UPA? What about a democratic and progressive alliance for environment?

The NDA government has not dismantled the environmental governance structure. But it has also not taken measures to strengthen governance

 
By Chandra Bhushan
Last Updated: Thursday 17 September 2015

The NDA government has not dismantled the environmental governance structure. But it has also not taken measures to strengthen governance

 Photo courtesy: RaviC/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A year ago, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came into power there was an unbridled optimism in the industry about “streamlining” of green clearances. Even before the government took office, the industry associations had their wish list ready.

It was widely reported in the media that in August 2014, the Confederation of Indian Industry submitted a 60-point action list to the prime minister’s office so that the process of environment, forest and wildlife clearances could be “streamlined”. By the end of August, the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEF&CC), had set up a High Level Committee (HLC) to review and suggest amendments to six key environment and forest legislations; the committee was given just three months to come forward with its recommendations.

For people like us, working in the field of environmental protection, these were ominous signs. Some of us predicted dismantling of the environmental governance. Others were worried about increased pace of project clearance in forests. Coming after the corporate cacophony of how environment was holding up growth, it was feared that the floodgates would open; environmental safeguards would be the first to go.

So one year down the line, how many of our worst predictions have come true?

First let’s look at some key trends:

  • Our analysis shows that there is hardly any difference between the NDA and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) on environment and forest clearances. Contrary to widespread reporting in the media, there is no significant departure with respect to number of environmental and forest clearances granted for key sectors in NDA government versus the UPA II government. In fact, from the available data (for the first nine months of NDA government) it seems that the amount of forestland diverted for development projects in this period has been the least since 2007.
  • Much like the UPA, there have not been any major reforms to improve the green clearance process to safeguard the environment and improve lives and livelihoods of communities. Instead, like UPA, NDA has also continued to make incremental changes to “ease the process” of project clearances. This has been done by devolving power to the state-level institutions to clear more projects and by diluting the provisions of public hearing. Both these trends can severely compromise the integrity of the environmental clearance system, especially if nothing is done to improve governance of state-level institutions, which lack capacity as well as accountability.
  • The good news is that in the last one year, government has moved on certain initiatives that could reduce pollution—this needs to be watched and supported:
  • First, air quality index has been launched. This will help to build public awareness about the quality of air in our cities and put pressure on the governments to act.
  • Second, there has been a focus to improve waste management rules—municipal, hazardous, e-waste, construction waste and plastic. The government has issued draft waste rules, which are a significant improvement from the past.
  • Third, existing pollution standards are being made more stringent for major industrial sectors. The draft notification on thermal power plants, issued a few weeks ago, when implemented would reduce pollution significantly.
  • But there is no credible action plan to improve air quality in our cities or clean our rivers, including the Ganga. As yet, there is hype and noise about cleaning, but the plan for air or rivers is business as usual.

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In the case of Ganga, government has made a hugely enhanced provision for cleaning, but it has no idea how it will make this money work. In fact, its idea for river cleaning is regressive—it refused to accept the need for ecological flow or to plan for sewage treatment differently in cities that are poor in sanitation facilities and capacity. Instead, what it has proposed is that it will pay 100 per cent of the cost and maintenance for 10 years to anyone who will come and set up sewage treatment plants. This is clearly money down the drain.

So, in conclusion, it has not dismantled the environmental governance structure or opened the floodgates of clearances, our worst fear. But it has also not strengthened governance or got its act together to improve air quality or clean rivers that is today destroying our health and our environment.

We cannot say this government came to power without a plan. Its plan was to work towards cleaning cities and rivers and “facilitate” green clearances to remove impediment to growth and development. Very early, it launched Clean India Mission and also moved to what could have “dismantled” green regulations.

  • It set up the HLC to “streamline” the green clearance processes. The HLC recommendations—if taken individually—would have diluted clearance provision and provided fast-track clearances for certain sectors. However, these recommendations were opposed widely. Even some BJP-ruled state governments did not support it.
  • It tried to rejig the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL), but this also ended up in controversy. The Supreme Court stepped in and questioned the legality of the constitution of the NBWL; the government was put on the back foot. So even though the government has nominated its own experts on this committee, as minutes show, clearances to projects in wildlife areas have been moderated.
  • It tried to relax (some say remove even) the provisions of the Forest Rights Act to speed up the clearance process. But this move was opposed by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

So, the government tried, but could not make big headway in relaxing the green clearances.

In the last one year, the government has found that making big and quick changes in the environmental laws and regulations, if it is viewed as anti-environment, is not easy in the complex and contested socio-political milieu of India.

It has also found that there is scope to improve environmental governance if it can take on board key stakeholders, as it did during the meeting of state environment ministers recently. I believe that the government should internalise this lesson.

There is a large scope for strengthening the environmental and forest governance that will not only protect the environment but also help reduce bureaucratic paperwork, the main cause for delay in green clearances. Similarly, there is a huge scope to strengthen institutions and involve public in environmental governance that will not only improve enforcement of the pollution norms but will also reduce inefficient processes and corruption. In these reforms, there are no conflicts between environment and development. Pursuing this agenda should be the goal of the government in the coming years.

This will make it not just NDA v UPA, but a truly democratic and progressive alliance for environment.

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