A slew of amendments brought in or sought to be made in multiple foundational laws related to the environment — all to the detriment of the cause, if the experts are to be believed — have raised questions through the year 2021 about the exact role of the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC).
And unfortunately, the prospects look no better for the year 2022 when the government is busy promoting ‘ease of doing business’, rather going against the grain of environmental conservation.
With a deep hangover of introducing an amendment to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Act in the year 2020 amid pandemic induced lockdown, the Ministry struggled in the High Court to agree for translation into ’22 official languages’ the first EIA half of the year 2021.
The Ministry finally agreed in the fag end of August 2021 and made available the drafts in all 22 languages in November. The Ministry has received more than 15 lakh responses to it, it had claimed.
With the stipulated time frame to send in comments, critiques, and suggestions over, the Ministry will turn every stone to bring that proposed amendment into reality.
The MoEF&CC, in July 2021, brought in a new SOP for dealing with post-facto clearances for industrial projects operating without prior EIA approval.
Second half of the year 2021 — especially after Bhupender Yadav, a lawyer by profession, took over the charge as the Minister — saw a series of draft / proposed amendments or, in case of Forest (Conservation) Act, a note about the government’s intention to dilute the Forest Act to suit business.
“The government is inching forward towards dilution of laws,” said Vikrant Tongad, founder of Social Action for Forests and Environment (SAFE) and the activist who had filed the petition demanding translations into 22 languages.
In October 2021, came the most alarming development by way of a Consultation Paper seeking multiple amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. In quick succession, came the proposed amendment to the Coastal Zone Regulation Notification 2019 that sought, among other things, to exempt oil and natural gas exploration and development activities from obtaining mandatory prior clearances.
In December 2021, Yadav introduced the Biological Diversity (Amendment) Bill, 2021 and another one to amend the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 (WLPA).
All these changes are proposed when natural disasters such as Chamoli glacier burst, high intensity cyclones, cloudburst-induced floods have taken a huge toll in the year 2021, impact of climate change notwithstanding.
Much to the chagrin of the environmentalist, MoEF&CC and two other ministries arrived at a consensus to give a green signal to as many as seven hydropower projects in the higher reaches of Uttarakhand; proposes to clear massive tracts of ancient Hasdeo Arand forest for mining, and last but never the least, the cabinet cleared the SPV for Ken Betwa Interlinking of Rivers project that has still not got certain statutory clearances among other such projects.
Water, and climate change expert from Odisha, Ranjan Panda, observed: “I see environmental legislations go in a direction where rules will be eased to clear more and more coal mining, hydropower and solar energy projects without really addressing the issues of forest destruction, decimation of freshwater ecosystems and erosion of rights over natural resources being currently enjoyed by local and indigenous communities who are dependent on these resources and have been protecting these.”
Such detrimental steps have far overshadowed the few definitely positive steps taken by the Ministry. For example, the MoEF&CC has embarked on Dolphins’ census, has come up with an action plan for demarcating elephant corridors and given a massive push to the conservation of wetlands and urban forests.
So what’s in the store for 2022?
Observing that it is very difficult to bring about change in the attitudes of individual officials, who in turn, can bring about positive policy change, Tongad said, “a change of heart cannot be expected overnight”.
Environmental lawyer Rahul Choudhury, also the co-founder of Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment (LIFE), said: “Conservation is nowhere on the agenda. None of the laws seem to show their intent and approach towards conservation.”
But Choudhary is more worried about how “some laws are being changed through notification. It will almost mean like delegated legislation, which happens at the administrative levels.”
Does that mean the laws would face no resistance? Does that mean, the laws would be passed just so easily as the government wants? Do we bid goodbye to the environment?
Public consultation processes have already been weakened doing a huge damage to the way environmental conservation governance, Panda said.
Pointing out that when it comes to pollution, people don’t even understand segregation of waste at source, the experts said there is a long way to go before people decry these legislations.
Said Choudhary, “Other than legal, there may not be much resistance. Environment, pollution, forests, have still not become political issues. No constituency will be threatened if these laws are passed, there is not going to be any other pressure.”
Tongad, however, had a different view. “There are Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh soon and then the countdown will begin for the 2024 General Elections. I don’t think any drastic changes will happen before them.”