Kanchi Kohli (KK) is a researcher and writer working on environment, forest and biodiversity governance in India and their interface with trade and industrialization. Her work draws empirical evidence from sites of conflict and locates it within legal and policy processes. In conversation with The Bastion’s Vaishnavi Rathore (VR), Kanchi Kohli talks about the shifting dialogues on environment, the importance of focusing on ensuring compliance in ongoing projects, democratising technical aspects of compliance, and where the hope in the current environmental scenario lies. 

VR: How did environmental justice come around to being your area of interest?

KK: I don’t think ‘environment’ happened seeking inspiration from any person in particular. Social justice was definitely something that I grew up with. My grandparents came from the Gandhian tradition, my mother’s been in the social field, and my father was a poet and a literary writer. ‘Equality’, and ‘respect for all living things’ etc. were terms that we grew up in; it was the general ethos around.  

Again, ‘environment’ was not that big a part of schooling or college, but social justice was. When I was doing my Masters in Social Work from TISS, Bombay, we were introduced to certain environment courses as a part of the course, but it was not as common speak back then. Now people are so much more conscience about it. “I want to do environmental reporting”— we did not hear things like this back then. There were flagship movements that would be talked about: Tehri, or the Narmada, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, but it wasn’t as pervasive as it is now.

It was only when I started working in Karnataka on a proposed power plant that it emerged more consciously. We were thrown into a space were social justice was very deeply embedded with environment and ecology around and people’s livelihoods. My colleague Manju Menon and I started digging up the legal procedures and that’s when we really came across something called the Environmental Impact Assessment, back in 1996. After Karnataka, I joined Kalpvriksh Environment Action Group, which is where I developed a larger peer and widened the scope of work. It was really learning by doing.

This was also post liberalisation period when the mood was completely different in the country. But there were certain realities that we had started observing. It did not seem right for any of the government decisions to fall heavily on the vulnerable; while helping one, you should not be impacting the other. When we started working around democratic forums like public hearings, we saw all these dynamics around.

So really it was just by default that I came into the environment! Maybe I unconsciously made these deliberate choices. But because of the consciousness around social justice, there has been a deep interlink between how I perceive and work on the environment—social justice becomes very much a part of it, it’s not just environment for the environment’s sake. 

VR: Why is the emphasis on ensuring legal compliance important for you?

KK: Now, between 1994 and 2006, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) underwent a full revamp. That’s when a lot of people put in their voluntary energy to say that these changes that are diluting the process and degrading the public sphere, should not go through. But a day before the notification was to expire, the Ministry issued it despite the opposition even from some political parties.

Post 1960s, India has a history of large developmental projects coming up all across the country, and post 1991, it only increased. Manju and I discussed that during this time a huge body of work has been done on interacting with projects prior to them coming, but not much on what happens post.

So we then decided, why don’t we look at this one small paragraph in the EIA which talks about what should happen after the project is up. After all, these projects were coming up and many of them were on expansion. How were people dealing with those impacts? Are those impacts legal or illegal? Really, the purpose was in figuring out how these projects are performing in terms of its compliance regimes. 

These were also becoming increasingly important because several times, the issues that would come up during the public hearings would end up being included as conditions on approval. So we wanted to see if those conditions were really being followed. We dealt with questions like what are the institutional mechanisms of compliance, was it really taking place, and how much public disclosure did it have. And the next part of the work was more focused on ‘ground truthing’ and lived impacts interlinked with the illegalities. That’s what we realised was a huge gap area.

This culminated in a study titled “Calling the Bluff”. That’s where we found out that going by the government’s own records (which was what we relied on), the non-compliance rates were almost 90%. There was hardly any understanding of who does these compliance reports. We tried to bring to the notice of the ministry saying that a lot of these were illegal.

Now that India today has almost 16,000 projects approved by the central ministry that are up and running and with many more that are approved by the State governments, how much compliance is being ensured becomes a very important question.   

VR:‘Compliance’ is a very technical issue. What methods has your team adopted in bringing this technical aspect down to people who are directly impacted?

KK: You cannot ignore the fact that regulations, law and policies are very elusive from people. If you see the recent trend, it has been to reduce or diminish your interface with the public because these take time, and hasten decision making. Forms, formats of public hearing, venues of meetings, the hierarchy of a conversation—all of these things are impediments. When you have been called by someone to speak in a venue that is unfamiliar, and a conversation that is hierarchical, of course you won’t be able to make use of that. All the principles of ‘free, fair, independent’ don’t work if the environment is not enabling.

As a part of Environmental Justice programme in Centre for Policy Research, we have tried to train people who are impacted to see if they can directly intervene in the process themselves and seek institutional responses based on sound evidence and clear tasks. Some of these are for immediate relief and others are for long term remedies. We work with community based para-legals, who research a problem and also work on solutions. 

The first step in any such work is to de-technicalise the issues. Just like a lawyer would argue a matter in court, anyone who is working on compliance should be able to argue the matter with the regulatory authority, or the media or anyone for that matter. How do you argue that an illegality has occurred? We wanted this ability to draw out a linkage should be available with as many people as possible.

For instance, I independently did a series of stories with Mylaw.net where I used story-telling as a tool. I basically draw out a situation, for instance, you are sitting around and a notice comes to your village. What does this notice mean? And then I’d introduce the law. The thing to remember is to never talk about legal procedures as is. It needs to be done keeping in mind the context type and local issues; they need to be experience based and problem based. Going clause wise may never sit in anyone’s head. I sometimes try and reference Bollywood dialogues in legal trainings!

VR: Talking about de-technicalising issues, could you tell a bit about the ‘Law For All’ Initiative?

KK: I started #lawforall as I felt the need to work with a least input, maximum impact methodology for understanding legal procedures related to environment, land, water, forests or wildlife. I wanted to experiment with it. I knew it wouldn’t hurt even if it does not gather interest. All I need to do is curate the dissemination of a legal document every morning on Twitter which responds to a legal question or a problem type. The idea was to have a space where citizens can navigate this nexus of law and policies that are difficult to comprehend. Several of these are also not available online. So, that’s how the initiative evolved as an open, free access space for larger outreach.

Of course, this was beyond the compliance aspect; it is more directed towards public legal education. It has been so encouraging to see that it picked up and currently, in just a span of short 6 months, it has been translated to about 10 languages. There is also a Facebook page for it.  

It is encouraging to know that the information is being used by citizens, lawyers, students, researchers who are interested in legal and institutional frameworks or problem solving, and activists. In some places where it’s being voluntarily translated like in Gujarat, it has gone down to fisher-folk etc. Sometimes, I get direct queries, and people have said that they have used the notifications that were shared.

VR: How do you think that media can play a role in bringing out issues related to Rule of Law?

KK: Media has to get out and be in places. And it’s important that they use the collected documents that locally people have, court orders etc. These are not just human stories on their own, but also those which are linked to documents. That gives you a whole picture. Also, we must not take for granted what people are saying, while not mistrusting anyone.  To know whether the action taken by someone as told to you was right or not, you need to follow that paper trail. In a way, it is needed to bring back investigative journalism, the space for which seems to have shrunk. 

You will have stories about scams by the government, and then those which talk about on ground impact, but can the media bridge those? If there is an issue, there will be five different facets of it which should be covered for a well-rounded story.

And curiosity! Peeling one layer after the other, that is where the strength lies. 

VR: Looking at the current environment-political scenario, where do you think we are headed? Can we do anything to turn the tide?

KK: We are all pretty bothered by the downward spiralling in social and environmental justice. The whole ‘do now, sort it out later’ is bothersome, conflicts are rising. The business model of environment has failed.

But where the hope lies, is the rising the consciousness. Today, world over climate strikes are happening, this was not the case a year back. In urban spaces, series of actions are being taken up. We have ‘Save Cubbon Park’, ‘Save Array’, ‘Save Aravallis’—whole bunch of citizen actions are coming up, which would hopefully keep demanding. 

I’m not entirely confident on how much the government will give into that, but maybe sooner or later, if there is a popular demand, if environment and law become common speak, you might have the government having to respond. Some hope lies there. Also, government is not all bad; there would be people within the system willing to change it, despite the odds being against them. A rising change within the government and outside on the streets gives some hope. At least it’s not deadly silent right now. Till the point we have the Constitution, and some democratic institutions alive, there is always hope. But that is not to deny that there is a downward spiral world over. But, we’ll just have to latch upon on democracy, a strong environmental and social conscience. Some people are out there and hopefully, more will join.

Views expressed are personal.


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