Alright: The Hindu editorial on changing environmental laws

The Union Environment Ministry, charged with safeguarding India’s forests and environmental assets, is proposing to amend sections of key environmental legislation and make them less threatening to potential offenders. India has eight fundamental pieces of legislation which set out a regulatory framework to ensure that natural resources are not exploited wantonly, acts of pollution are caught and there is a mechanism to punish and deter offenders. Under the provisions of the current legislation, offenders are liable to imprisonment for up to five years or a fine of up to one lakh rupees, or both. If violations continue, there is an additional fine of up to ₹5,000 for each day that such breach or contravention continues after conviction. There is also a provision for prison terms of up to seven years. Under the proposed new amendments, the department says it wants to eliminate “the fear of imprisonment for mere violations,” and therefore ensure that such violations only result in fines. However, serious environmental crimes that cause serious injury or death would result in imprisonment under the Indian Penal Code. These penalties would be decided by an adjudication officer and transferred to an ‘Environment Protection Fund’. Additionally, the amount of potential fines has been reduced from over one million rupees to five crore rupees. These proposals do not yet have the force of law and have been placed in the public domain for comment.

The question of whether the threat of imprisonment acts as a deterrent has a long history with supporters and opponents. The proposed amendments do not cover the destruction of forests and wildlife, which constitute a substantial fraction of environmental crimes, and would continue to invite existing criminal provisions. Research on environmental crime in the United States and Europe suggests that fines are the most common mode of punishment. India has a long history of corporate rights abuses and a painfully slow redress system. An analysis by the Center for Science and the Environment found that Indian courts took between 9 and 33 years to clear a backlog of environmental violation cases. As of 2018, nearly 45,000 cases were pending trial and another 35,000 cases were added that year. More than 90% of cases were pending in five of the seven main environmental laws. While fines could theoretically help achieve faster redress, large environmental fines will continue to be challenged in court, adding to the prevailing practice of delayed justice. The threat of imprisonment could have had a deterrent effect in India where the effectiveness of environmental regulation is below s. Justice for environmental crimes must be served quickly and fairly before tinkering with the law to make it less worrisome.