Too closed for comfort

Environment ministry begins preparing environment policy amid unwarranted secrecy

By Clifford Polycarp
Published: Thursday 15 April 2004

-- (Credit: EMKAY)the beginning of the year saw Union minister of state for environment and forests Ramesh Bais announcing that a National Environment Policy (nep) would be framed and presented to the Union cabinet by May. But with its 'zero' draft not adding up to much and the document now being rewritten completely, it is difficult to fathom how the deadline will be met. That the entire exercise is confined to the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) has given rise to apprehensions about the fresh script too.

The mandate for the policy came from the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (see Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 18, February 15, 2004). The latest meeting in the process of formulating nep's first draft was held on February 27. It was attended by senior officials of the ministry and a team from The Energy and Resources Institute (teri) -- a policy research organisation assisting the government in preparing the policy. teri had submitted the 'zero' draft to the moef in December 2003.

During the February meet, the first three chapters of the policy -- including its preamble, objectives and principles -- were discussed. According to moef sources, two key decisions were taken. Firstly, it was felt that the language in these chapters needed to be simplified. Secondly, it was resolved that the group would meet regularly to discuss each new chapter and to review the changes in earlier sections with the aim of preparing a first draft. Once completed, the draft would be circulated amongst various ministries and key stakeholders.

The moef is tight-lipped about the nitty-gritty of the policy. "We are in the midst of an internal exercise in pursuance of a first draft. It would, therefore, not be appropriate to divulge details at this juncture," said Prodipto Ghosh, secretary, moef. Ghosh was reluctant to part with even basic information such as the principles on which the policy would be premised. But Down To Earth conducted its own inquiries to unearth the particulars.

The draft, though incomplete, embodies some high-sounding principles. For instance, it mentions that people will be at the centre of concerns of sustainable development. This implies that any measure taken to conserve the environment would not conflict with their needs. Another inclusion is that of the precautionary approach. As per this, action would be taken to tackle the causes of environmental degradation and to prevent any impact on human health even when the science on these causes and impacts is imperfect. Further, the policy would enable the maximisation of welfare across all sections of society. Fine ideas as they may appear, it remains to be seen what is eventually retained, deleted or inserted when the first draft is brought in the public domain.

The authorities' caginess has heightened the anxiety of those who are not involved in the planning process. While some are concerned about the motives behind the policy, others are critical of the process itself. A case in point is that of Pune-based non-governmental organisation (ngo) Kalpvriksh, which wrote a letter to the moef dated March 13 asking it to be more transparent. Kalpvriksh was involved in the formulation of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan for the moef. Some New Delhi-based ngos like Gene Campaign and Toxics Link are equally concerned. But Ghosh defends the ministry's stand: "There is no point in having a wider discussion right now. Once the first draft is ready, there will be a basis for a more structured debate." Most civil society representatives feel that even the initial drafting process should be more consultative. "This would prevent any acrimonious response to the draft when it is made public," asserts Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign.

Such suggestions do carry weight in view of the fact that though teri consulted key industry groups such as the Confederation of Indian Industry and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry while making the 'zero' draft, it did not seek the opinion of any of these ngos. While teri did contact Kalpvriksh initially, it didn't pursue the matter. This despite several reminders from the ngo. teri's principal investigator on nep, Rajeev Kher, explains: "Initially, we had started a process of consultation. Later, the moef gave us more time and it was decided that we would prepare a draft first and then invite suggestions."

Given that the 'zero' draft was rushed and the inputs sought were inadequate, it is not surprising that the entire text is being written afresh. moef sources say the reason for this is that the 'zero' draft was "too general". Now that the ministry is starting from scratch, it would be well-advised to engage key stakeholders. After all, the first draft would also determine the direction of the debate.

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