High-powered committee report on reform on environmental laws: A non-trivial threat to India’s ecological and economic security

esgBy Leo F Saldanha* and Bhargavi S Rao**

On August 29, 2014 the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF & CC) of the Government of India set up a High Level Committee headed by former Union Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramanian, IAS (retd). This committee was given a comprehensive mandate: To review all laws and judgments pertaining to environment, wildlife and forest protection, and also those relating to pollution control, and then produce a report with specific recommendations for reforms in law and governance. This enormous and complex exercise of review of laws and judgments, and governance practices, followed by the formulation and presentation of a report with recommendations for amendments to existing laws, was to be completed within two months.

The deadline for completion of the Committee’s tasks was extended by a month, and the final report was submitted by the Committee to Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change with Independent Charge on November 18, 2014. The report was not made public at that time. However, it was leaked, and it soon became available on various websites of media and environmental and social action groups. Soon thereafter, an embarrassed Ministry also made the report available on its website.

The entire exercise has been undertaken in a hurried manner, without sufficient inquiry into the relevant factors, without addressing concerns of a range of communities, especially those which are indigenous and natural resource dependent, and without at all considering the importance of consulting elected representatives from Local Government, Legislatures and the Parliament. This report, thereby, is an outcome of a comprehensively democracy deficit effort, and promotes a schema for environmental reforms, which, if adopted could result in widespread chaos in environmental governance and jurisprudence, and also would result in irreversible damage to the environment, cause widespread loss of natural ecosystems and could further fuel fundamental violation of human rights in a country where discontents over environmental decisions are become increasingly contentious.

There are elements in the Committee’s report that are worth taking note of and possibly implementing. But these are few and far between, and a bulk of the committee’s recommendations are based on an extraordinary reliance on the capacity of technical bureaucracy to deliver good environmental governance, on market forces to meet environmental management objectives, on a slew of new regulatory and judicial forums to police the system, without actually making an effort to enquire and justify if such comprehensive makeover in the environmental decision making system is essential at all. Neither does the Committee formulate its tasks clearly, nor does it make any effort to clearly explain the basis of its recommendations. In light of which, what the Committee recommends comes across as a set of confusing proposals which if implemented could confound the environmental governance system quite fundamentally.

With this in view, and in the interest of present and futures generations of the country, and also in securing the extraordinary biodiversity of the region that has evolved over billions of years, we urge the Government of India to comprehensively reject the recommendations of this Committee. In the national interest we urge the Government to repeat the exercise ensuring terms of reference are clear and not caged by catch phrases that confound more than clarify, by involving an inter-disciplinary committee consisting of women and men, experienced and expert members, and drawn from various geographies, supported by a deeply democratic process and with sufficient time and space for public consultations nation-wide, so that the outcome would be recalled as a monumental effort that not only secured national interest, but also that of a world precariously edging towards runaway climate change induced impacts.

*leo@esgindia.org, **bhargavi@esgindia.org, with Environment Support Group (ESG), Bangalore. Click HERE to download detailed critique of the High Powered Committee Report by the ESG

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