Daft release?

India unveils its National Environment Policy 2004. Is it possible to smell a rat?

By Clifford Polycarp
Published: Thursday 30 September 2004

-- the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) has released a draft environment policy called the National Environment Policy 2004 (nep). Its preamble states that there is a need for a comprehensive policy statement "in order to infuse common approach to the various sectoral, cross-sectoral, including fiscal, approaches to environmental management."

Currently, the country has different policies to guide different sectors: the National Forest Policy 1988; the National Conservation Strategy and Policy Statement on Environment and Development 1992; Policy Statement on Abatement of Pollution 1992; the National Water Policy 2002. nep would serve as the basis for "reviewing objectives, instruments and strategies" embodied in other policies and laws pertaining to the environment. The preamble further states that nep is "intended to be a guide to action".

It is ironic that a country which instituted its first environmental legislation way back in 1974 -- the water pollution act -- and created an environment ministry in the early 1980s lacks a comprehensive policy enunciating environmental challenges and solutions. But with nep's release, a final environment policy appears to be in the offing.
NEP's Genesis The nep was formulated following a directive from the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs after the National Development Council meeting in December 2002, moef secretary Pradipto Ghosh told Down To Earth. "The underlying reason behind the cabinet committee's directive has been the inconsistent, ad-hoc decisions taken in recent years in various sectors that relate to the environment," he explained.

Interestingly, a major reason behind nep's genesis was the strident opposition of many chief ministers to regulatory provisions protecting the environment -- clearances for industrial projects, coastal zone regulations and permissions for use of forest land. In a press release issued on January 15, 2004, announcing the imminent birth of an environment policy, the moef explained that the Cabinet had asked for the reform of the process for review and approval of environmental impact assessment and review of the coastal zone regulations in light of certain Supreme Court rulings.

But environmentalists smell a rat. They believe nep is not so much a statement of intent to protect the environment, as a statement to weaken the environmental regulatory system in the name of streamlining processes and decentralising decision-making.

They say the nep, put out for public comment on August 21, 2004 on moef's website, provides an opportunity for the country to benchmark environmental performance and assess future challenges. The challenge is to achieve balance between environment and development and to show how environment security can become the country's economic security.
Environmental challenges The nep states the environmental challenges as: increased poverty because of environmental degradation; increased health burden; and global environmental concerns like climate change. In its assessment, "activities undertaken in the process of development or poverty by themselves do not cause environmental degradation; rather, it is caused by institutional failures such as lack of clarity on the rights of access and use of environmental resources, improper policies such as subsidies (direct or indirect) for the use of certain resources, market failures linked to inadequate regulation and limits on governance." Therefore, the challenge is to balance aspirations with protection and sustainable use of natural resources, by correcting anomalies in regulations, in policies and in institutions and practices.

nep's critics say that while it clearly spells out the challenges, it lacks clarity of approach on possible solutions. The problems are known, they say. But the challenge is to find practical solutions and to pursue those solutions through policy and practice. nep stresses an 'economistic' approach for all solutions, they allege.

Flawed process
The government claims that the draft policy "will be finalised after extensive consultation with relevant stakeholders". But activists say that the process so far has been extremely flawed and non-inclusive. As per official information, in 2003 moef commissioned The Energy and Resources Institute (teri), a Delhi-based research institute, to write the draft policy. teri sent some points on the environmental policy to experts by e-mail, asking for their comments. It is not clear what emerged from this consultation. But according to Ghosh, the draft that teri sent was completely rewritten by top moef officials .

Environmentalist Ashish Kothari told Down To Earth that he wrote to teri and then to the moef0, stressing that this was an important process and needed widespread consultation. He did not receive a reply. In March 2004, he wrote again, asking for the process to be made public. About 50 environmental groups have criticised the nep and the way it was formulated. They see this as one of the many instances of a breakdown of the processes of engagement in moef. (see box: Commercial clearing house?).

The moef is seeking comments on nep on its website by October 15, 2004. It also expects to hear more in impending consultation with environmental secretaries and ministers. Once this is done, it plans to finalise the draft and take it to the cabinet for its approval. moef is silent about its proposed deadline, but observers say efforts might be made to bulldoze the policy through as fast as possible.

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