The environment-development divide: is there room for dialogue?

If we accept the premise that ecological concerns are as worthy as developmental needs , then the decision to have a mine, dam, or road needs to be weighted by its ecological detriment

By Meghna Krishnadas
Published: Wednesday 01 October 2014

if we accept the premise that ecological concerns are as worthy as developmental needs , then the decision to have a mine, dam, or road needs to be weighted by its ecological detriment

Meghna Krishnadas and Divya KarnadWe need to plan for long-term preservation of forests and wildlife in a developing India, while simultaneously improving efficiency of resource-use.Instead, we are caught in an environment vs development crossfire. It’s time for a real attempt at balance.
Modi came to power on a platform of promised opportunities. This landslide victory and the hiatus in messy coalition politics raised expectations for markets, investors, businesses and other growth pundits. While global recession has slammed the brakes on our meteoric 9% GDP rise, all hoped that Modi’s strident growth mantra and his non-nonsense style of governance will speed up business and infrastructure projects, smooth routes for investors, and ease bureaucratic impediments and restrictions on project implementation. But, there is a catch.

Some development projects can have negative environmental consequences. Speeding up clearances for growth projects means that environmental clearances will have to be reviewed quickly, as Mr. Javadekar, the current minister for Environment and Forests (now Climate Change too)has been doing. Which is OK as a general principle of increasing the efficiency of bureaucratic procedures in new-age India. But not OK if it means compromised environmental assessments or dilution of existing protection norms.

Old debates in a new government

We have been mired in an environment vs development sparring for a while now.The formulation of the Cabinet Committee on Investment by the UPA-II, and having environment ministers with blatant conflicts of interest (Veerappa Moily held MoEF and Petroleum) in effect served to override due diligence in the clearance process.The implicit attitude has been that ecological concerns are second fiddle, and environmental procedures are the sole hurdles to achieving economic goals. This seems to have carried over to the new government.

Bureaucrats at the MoEF have suggested removal of mining bans in forest areas and easing Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index-based moratorium in industrial zones. One may ask why officials of the MoEF, whose brief is to ensure that the relevant environmental and conservation laws are upheld and implemented in a fair and transparent manner, should instead be commenting on development related issues. Further, appointment of the new National Board for Wildlife has been mired in controversy, with civil society crying foul over under-representation. Recently, the government has proposed to ‘reconsider’ the National Green Tribunal, created to deal with environmental grievances. Now, possibly in response to the Supreme Court placing a stay on NBWL clearances and allotted coal blocks, the government is proposing to amend conservation laws to meet ‘current requirements'.

The many causes of clearance delay

A well-articulated op-edby Ramaswamy Iyer outlined the many reasons why environmental or forest clearance for a project might be delayed. Primarily, it highlighted that delays are not always due to slow assessments or bureaucratic impediments. In many cases, it is because of incomplete information by the applicant, or non-compliance with procedure.

Which brings us to the systemic deficiencies that plague the clearance process. Firstly, lack of information. The traditional source of bureaucratic power, and corruption at multiple levels, has been the information vacuum regarding procedures. While transparency is improving in India, procedure can still seem arbitrary.

Second, inclusionof the greatest diversity of environment and conservation expertise is lacking, with deficient representation of scientists and civil society. Bureaucrats whose training and function is administrative and not technical, are often the final judge and veto decision-makers on matters of environmental assessments. This would be unacceptable in other professional fields like medicine or engineering. However, with regard to environmental policy and decision making, there appears to be no definition of who should be considered an “expert”.

Which in itself would not be a problem. If environmental clearances were finally made in an objective manner with due consideration of all evidence – ecological, sociological, and economic, and reasoned debate and logical dialogue was the way to arrive at a compromise, then the authority making the final decision wouldn’t be the issue. The MoEF has been known to clear ecologically destructive projects, based on shoddyimpact evaluations, and notwithstanding contrary opinions from independent experts. The Lafarge mining case was used by the Supreme Court to highlight this issue. The SC had directed the government to set up an independent body to oversee environmental and forest assessments, but this remains undone.

There are also serious social consequences for local communities of big businesses rampaging through forested areas. While it is argued that mines and industries bring in jobs and improve economic well-being, this analysis is disingenuously one-dimensional. Such simplistic, dichotomous comparisons of environment vs development neglects the many aspects of human well-being. It also compromises future ecological security of natural resources like water, clean air, local climate, and forest resources that people depend upon.

The politics of environmental decisions

Most importantly, a broader conservation dialogue is missing. The process of negotiation is ultimately a political exercise. Ecological science is only one component of decision-making process of replacing a forest with mine, dam, or industry. But, if we accept the premise that ecological and environmental concerns are as worthy as developmental needs, a philosophy enshrined in our constitution, then the decision to have a mine, dam, or road needs to be weighted by its ecological detriment.However, ecological requirements play out in the long-term. Growth in contrast, needs short-term, here and now decisions.

The unfortunate truth remains that environmental concerns are not seen as a national priority at par with development and growth. Unsurprising. Growth provides tangible, short-term results. People relate to jobs, money, and purchasing power. Goods and services in the market are there for all to see. Rising GDP is vital ammunition in election warfare. In contrast, environmental concerns only manifest over the long-term, and are often far removed from the sphere of immediate needs. Who needs a tiger when we need steel?While a smoother and faster process of environmental clearances will undoubtedly help in better planning of developmental projects, “quick” clearances should not be at the cost of quality and validity of assessment.

Moving forward to environmental security

The way forward is to acknowledge the legitimacy of environmental concerns, and uphold the constitutional and legal provisions for ecological protection. We already have the laws. Any amendment to these should be to positive changes that strengthen our ability to protect forests and wildlife, and increase involvement of civil society and scientific expertise. Clarity of procedure and transparency in implantation can go a long way in easing the process of applying and assessing environmental clearance. Procedural overhaul, by involving multiple stakeholders and acting on advice from experts with relevant knowledge (as proven by their training, credentials, and track record) should become the norm. The government and bureaucracy needs to be accountable for clearance decisions taken against contrary advice from these experts. Yes, compromises will be needed in some cases. But, the reasoning and logic behind the decisions should be in the open for all to evaluate and track. The MoEF has to be accountable in their mandate to protect the environment.

We have to move into an era of improved efficiency and clarity in environmental governance. The clearance process has to be sorted now, so that decision-making regarding the trade-offs in growth vs conservation does not degenerate into an opaque and arbitrary process. We may not see it yet, but India’s environmental security, our water, air, and climate, will hinge heavily on the land-use decisions we take now.This is an opportunity for us to strengthen our provisions for conservation and environmental protection. The last thing we need is for the lawsto be diluted to suit ‘current requirements’ of development alone.

Divya Karnad is an ecologist and geographer with Rutgers University, USA and the Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning, India
Meghna Krishnadas is a conservation ecologist with School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University

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