Written by Arpitha Kodiveri
Against the backdrop of an overwhelming pro-Modi-mandate, the BJP-led government has been working on several amendments during the election period. The amendments which reduce access to information for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) or those that dilute the authority of Gram Sabhas in forest clearance processes run the risk of stifling public participation and catalyzing damage to India’s natural resources.
In 2006, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was passed. Today, environmental laws which advocate public participation are rare to come by. Those that see the light of day are born from resistance movements by local communities which are adversely impacted by development projects.
The challenge for the NDA government has been (and will continue to be) in meeting the demands for creating jobs and enabling a fertile environment for businesses. However, their roadmap seems to overhaul the environment and forest clearance processes in a dangerous manner. Is it necessary to compromise on the tenets of environmental democracy for the ease of doing business?
Conversations surrounding the Ease of Doing Business (EODB) are vague and easily misunderstood. While it is derived from the ‘Doing Business’ rankings of the World Bank, EODB has come to be synonymous with deregulation in India. The country has jumped from 142 in 2014 to 77 in 2018 on these rankings. The re-elected government’s obsession in performing well on the Ease of Doing Business Index (EDBI) marks a shift in prioritising core issues that affect foreign direct investment to simply positioning India as a great investment destination. For example, in order to improve FDI, it is necessary for the NDA to actively engage with land rights contestations instead of brushing them under the carpet for later.
Emblematic of this behaviour is the amendments to the Environmental Impact Notification, 2006. Critical information that was mandatorily provided by project proponents in any application process can now be kept confidential, thanks to the amendment’s Zero Draft. Insufficient information reduces local communities’ effectiveness while participating in such decision-making processes.
As recently as February, a letter by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change stated that the approval of local Gram Sabhas would not be required for Stage-1 of the forest clearance process. While this is being contested by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the general ethos of governance is clear for all to see.
In a strong letter the Tribal Affairs Ministry asks the Env Ministry to alter its Feb 26 order that diluted gram sabha powers making forest diversion a fait accompli for Adivasis & forestdwellers. Letter points out: violation of the #ForestRightsAct is a punishable offence! pic.twitter.com/2PIwNY5gPn
— Chitrangada/ଚିତ୍ରାଙ୍ଗଦା (@ChitrangadaC) April 11, 2019
With the objective of reducing government regulations and deterring concerted participatory efforts by activists, the EODB has been pursued through legislative amendments. There are time-bound pressures to provide clearances that are otherwise seen as a barrier to the speedy establishment of industry and services. While speed bodes well for corporate conglomerates, it is certainly not the most prudent and sustainable way to address India’s aspirations for greater growth.
The Cost of Doing Business
The term ‘environmental democracy‘ broadly refers to the participation of the citizenry in decision-making processes that have an impact on their immediate environment. Public hearings for EIA processes or the necessity for a Gram Sabha’s consent in obtaining a forest clearance are critical benefits of fostering an environmental democracy. It actively ensures another layer of checks and balances while equipping citizens to inform state decision making.
India does not have the strongest foundations for fostering environmental democracy. Take the land-related conflicts mentioned earlier, for example. These have been on the rise, according to a 2012 study conducted by the Rights and Resources Initiative. One-third of India’s population is affected by land and forest takeovers; the reason often being that local communities were neither consulted nor gave consent before the land was provided to industries. The pollution that ensues goes unchecked by officially instituted regulatory agencies like the Central Pollution Control Board.
The persistence of these flimsy processes has adversely affected industries’ functioning as well. Pohang Steel Company’s attempts to acquire land for its integrated steel plant is one such case. An MoU was signed in 2005 without informing or consulting the local Odiya communities. This was followed by a long drawn conflict between POSCO, the local tribal communities and the parastatal Odisha Industrial and Infrastructure Company (IDCO). Eventually, POSCO withdrew citing the inability to overcome the land-related conflict as one of the main reasons for its withdrawal.
From Tata in Singur to POSCO in Odisha, the need for inclusive deliberative processes is evident. This can be a more progressive approach for negotiating development projects for all stakeholders. While the lure of EODB tends to bypass this vital step, doing so increases discontent on the ground, making it difficult for industries to sustain themselves.
Industries need to obtain a ‘social license’ in order to operate and incorporate seamlessly
Bypassing local communities takes us back to an autarchic colonial legal framework wherein the State’s stake over public resources goes unchallenged.
Prudent Decision-Making for the Future
It is a well-known fact that environmental regulatory agencies in India are overworked and in many instances are unable to conduct necessary periodic on-site checks. In such a regulatory context, local communities can act as great vaults of information, updating the regulators on issues of importance. This layer of scrutiny is needed to close the feedback loop, making sure that the regulatory agencies are well informed.
In the rush to climb up the EODB rankings, we risk compromising on a regulatory system that strengthens environmental governance. This further adds fuel to already hot-button issues. The operations of the Vedanta’s copper smelter plant in Tuticorin poisoned water sources that local communities depended upon. In one of the several violent protests that ensued, 13 protestors were shot dead. These deaths are warning signs of the dangers of bypassing an environmental democracy’s tenets. With growing temperatures and shrinking resources, if public participation is compromised herein, more such instances will become commonplace.
Activists in Bengaluru protest against #Sterlite outside Vedanta office near MG road. 13 people have been killed so far in police firing during anti-sterlite protest in Thoothukudi.@CNNnews18 pic.twitter.com/nVK933Fwdw
— Revathi Rajeevan (@RevathiRajeevan) May 24, 2018
Not only do land and environmental conflicts act as barriers for speedy industrialisation, but they are spaces where notions of development and its contours are constantly being negotiated. If sabka saath sabka vikas is truly at the heart of this government’s development plan, it must foster inclusive amendments (if any) to environmental laws and protection processes.