Over the past few months, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has proposed amendments to two key laws: the Wild Life Protection Act 1972 and the Biological Diversity Act 2002 (pdf). While environmentalists and conservationists focus on the proposed changes to the two laws, calling them watering down, there are other office orders that the Department of the Environment has introduced in the past two months. , which push for ease of business and could further weaken the country’s green. regulations.
Amendments to legislation are generally made in public consultation, while official orders are communications from an authority to carry out/direct certain actions, which do not go through a public consultation phase.
Among the MoEFCC Orders, an Order (pdf) clears the way for deforestation for residential projects of up to one hectare on forest land in exceptional circumstances. Another ordinance introduces a star rating system (pdf) to encourage state environmental authorities to recommend environmental clearances as soon as possible. The ministry also sent an order announcing revisions to the net present value rates levied for the diversion of forest land.
Board Orders for Environmental Policy Changes
On January 24, the Forest Conservation Division of the MoEFCC sent a letter to all state governments clarifying the use of forest land for residential purposes under the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980. According to this letter, “in exceptional circumstances, residential projects up to one hectare, may be considered for approval” under the FCA 1980 by the MoEFCC on “appropriate justification and recommendation by the relevant state government” and the regional office of the ministry. The order specified that “the use of a forest area for the establishment of industries, the construction of residential settlements, institutes, the disposal of fly ash, the rehabilitation of displaced persons, etc. are activities not specific to the site and cannot be considered on forest land as a rule.”
However, according to some experts, the latter ordinance does not specify “exceptional circumstances”, leaving interpretation to expert bodies deciding such cases. The decision on the office order was based on a recommendation from a panel of forestry experts, which was accepted by the ministry. Ministry officials, however, defend the decision by saying the order removes a previous misinterpretation that allowed people to exploit forest areas.
Another departmental move that has sparked anger in the past month was the star rating system for states, introduced to allow faster approval of proposals seeking environmental clearance, to promote ease of doing business. The order dated Jan. 17 says the ministry has taken several steps to streamline the environmental permitting process and reduce the time it takes to issue permits. The issue of a ranking system for states granting permits was raised at a meeting on November 13, 2021, chaired by the union’s cabinet secretary to discuss “ease of doing business” measures.
“It was decided to incentivize states through a star-rating system based on efficiency and CE grant times. This is intended as a mode of recognition and encouragement as well as to prompt improvements where necessary,” the order said.
The system for deciding the rating included criteria such as the average number of days for the granting of the CE, the percentage of processing of cases requesting terms of reference or authorizations, and complaints resolved by the authorities.
Ease of doing business at the expense of the environment?
On February 1, during the budget speech (pdf), India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a one-stop form for faster approvals of proposals requesting green clearances.
“A one-stop portal, Parish, for all green permissions was launched in 2018. It has helped to significantly reduce the time needed for approvals. The scope of this portal will now be extended to provide information to candidates. Depending on the location of the units, information on specific approvals will be provided. It will make it possible to request all four approvals through a single form and track the process through the centralized processing center-Green,” she said.
Environmental lawyer Rahul Choudhary told Mongabay-India that whether you look at the series of changes the government continues to make or the recently presented budget, the intent is clear. “What the government just wants is to make sure there is no opposition or scrutiny against its policy of rapid permits for businesses…even if it comes at the expense of the environment . For example, what is considered a forest in India changes with what the government requires at that particular time. It is nothing but regressive,” said Choudhary, who is the co-founder of the Delhi-based Legal Initiative for Forests & Environment, a law firm that recently won the Right Livelihood Award 2021, widely considered the alternative Nobel Prize.
Office orders facilitate decisions without consultation
The system of changing India’s green regulations through a series of administrative orders, without public consultation, rather than presenting them all together in an amendment to an environmental policy or law is not new. Industry experts say it has been part of the country’s green regulatory ecosystem for many years now.
Over the past few years, India has witnessed a systematic dilution of regulations governing work in coastal areas or the process of environmental clean-up. One example is the proposed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 notification to replace the 2006 EIA notification. project have already been brought about through administrative orders over the years. .
Debadityo Sinha, an environmentalist and senior fellow at the Vidhi Center for Legal Policy, said neither ordinary people nor experts who follow the subject closely find it easy to keep up with the changes made by the environment ministry.
“Often, the Union Department of Environment announces significant changes by proposing amendments to laws governing the environment, forestry, wildlife or biodiversity sector. But this is not the only way. Throughout the year, through a series of orders and notifications, changes are made to green rules and regulations. If all of these changes are taken together and a larger canvas is created, then it becomes clear that the government has already undertaken a larger change/dilution of the rules via a series of small changes – and that too without any public consultation. This is what happened at the time of EIA regulations or CRZ (Coastal Regulatory Zone) notification and this is what is happening now,” Sinha told Mongabay-India.
“Is there a project that has been rejected by the government clearance mechanisms? There is no guarantee of liability towards India’s environmental protection,” he questioned.
Sinha pointed out that even in the last budget, the allocation has been reduced for the Air Quality Commission, the National Biodiversity Authority and autonomous research institutes such as the Indian Council for Forestry Research and Education, Indian Institute of Forest Management, Indian Wildlife Institute, GB Pant Institute and Salim Ali Center of Ornithology and Natural History.
The latest amendments that the MoEFCC is working on are the amendments to the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) and the Biological Diversity Act (2002). Following widespread criticism of the amendments, the government referred the Biological Diversity Amendment Bill (2021) to a Joint Parliamentary Committee and the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Bill 2021 to a standing parliamentary committee.
The committees have begun the process of communicating with stakeholders and listening to the concerns they have raised. For example, the Nature Conservancy Foundation, in a submission (pdf) to the Parliamentary Standing Committee, expressed concern over amendments obsoleting state wildlife councils, alignment with the rights of local populations and the provisions of the Forest Rights Act 2006, allowing trade in live elephants or the lack of any provision to ensure the protection of wildlife habitats, among others.
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