By Harshmeet Singh
It isn’t easy to control your greed when you have a bag full of gold in front of you. All the talks of ‘leaving it for the next generation’ remain on paper and the lust takes over your senses. Our environmental resources are one such bag of gold. They seem abundant at first sight, but before you realise, your ambitions sweep them off and all you are left with is regret.
If the UPA government was at fault for mishandling the environment related issues in the country, the Modi Government has only done worse. Interestingly, while the Government has been boisterous about its handful of achievements and other controversial debates, it has conveniently maintained silence over its ruthless approach in overriding environmental laws and authorities in the name of development. And before we realise, we would neither be left with forests nor the so-called development that was promised.
Prakash Javadekar, the Union Environment minister is working overtime to ensure that the Government’s ‘friends’ don’t have a tough time fighting the environmental laws. One of his first decisions was to ensure that the coal mines that produce below 16 million tonnes of coal per year and are willing to increase their production by half can do so easily without the need of holding a public hearing.
Diluting Forests Right Act – Done!
Next was the dilution of the Forests Right Act. The Government ordered that the companies need not hold any consultations with the Gram Sabhas before diverting the land for industrial uses. The other changes in the Act give companies the freedom to inspect forest lands for minerals without the consent of Gram Sabha. This move is in violation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996, or PESA which gave Gram Sabhas the authority to self govern their natural resources.
Additionally, Irrigation projects which require less than 2000HA would not need to take environmental clearance while the projects concerning less than 10000 HA can now be given assent by State Governments. Did these changes catch anyone’s eye? The Government made sure it didn’t!
Weakening NGT? Done!
In August last year, a number of media reports pointed towards the Government’s attempts to dilute the powers of the National Green Tribunal. The significance of the NGT can be understood from the fact that appeals against the orders of the NGT can only be made in the Supreme Court. The Tribunal has often run into the Government on a number of issues in the past. The Government is now planning to convert it into an administrative body under the control of the environment ministry itself. Furthermore, the Government is contemplating changing criminal offences for violations of environmental laws into civil penalties. Government’s apathy towards NGT is evident from the fact that since its formation in 2010, the NGT has never had the full strength of its benches.
“Laws are always changing” – Javadekar
Last year, when Narendra Modi took the centre stage at the historic Madison Square Garden in the USA, he talked about ‘dismantling old laws’ to bring about a change. A couple of months later, TSR Subramanian committee on environmental laws came up with its report, which said that “the environmental laws need to be streamlined to match with the growth objectives”. The report favoured amending the laws to fast-track the process of giving environmental clearances to industrial projects. It was hard not to see Modi’s imprints in the report.
Over-ruling Supreme Court’s orders? Done!
According to a 2012 order of the honourable Supreme Court, an area coming in the radius of up to 10 km around all the National Parks and Sanctuaries must be notified as an ESZ (eco-sensitive zone). This meant that all the hotels and tourist resorts coming inside such zones shall be regulated according to an approved master plan to ensure that the natural habitat of wildlife is not restricted. It also banned establishment of mid-sized polluting industries in this region. The Modi Government wasted little time in reducing this limit to 5km and flouting the directions of the Supreme Court.
With an aim of further strengthening its control over environmental authorities, the Government realigned the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) and reduced the number of independent members to three from the earlier 15! This move of the Government is under the scrutiny of the Supreme Court that has directed the Government that “any decision taken by it (NBWL) shall not be given effect to till further orders”.
Some of the other ambitious plans of the Government include a new legal definition of the forests in the country. This definition would exclude all such forests that are not classified in government records. Once the definition comes into force, all such areas, including some forest patches in the famous Aravalli hills could be chopped off without any forest clearance.
The recent flash floods in Uttarakhand that claimed over 5,000 lives were attributed to rampant deforestation and flouting of environmental norms in the state. Yet, instead of learning a lesson, the Government has conveniently ignored such warnings from the environmentalists, which would only prepare the ground for the next disaster to hit us anytime.
Prime Minister’s desire to enhance the ‘ease of doing business’ isn’t hidden from anyone and neither are his cosy relations with corporate honchos. If the current trend is anything to go by, we could see major changes in the environmental laws of the country in the coming days. It is now up to the civil society, environmentalists and social activists to highlight these issues which the Government and the media overlook ever so conveniently. It would be such a pity if BJP’s payback to its corporate friends comes at such a high cost to the country.