Looking out for environment justice amidst narratives of ravaged landscapes, polluted rivers, displaced homes

enviKanchi Kohli*

“This place is not for you Madam. Better you don’t speak”, spoke a husky voice behind me as I began deposing at a `Public Hearing’ for the expansion of a Sponge Iron plant in Raigarh, Chhatisgarh. This was not an official voice or a voice of reason, so I continued to make my submission at this legal forum mandated under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2006.

That was then. But, I never thought this localized experience almost ten years back would keep coming back to me so often, in different contexts, all across the country. If you find yourself batting for principles of natural justice, restricting the rampant and facilitated land conversions in favour of industry, countering instances of large-scale livelihood loss, the “antidevelopment” tag often follows suit.

Where then is the place for any negotiation or a conversation to reconcile different points of view? This is especially so, when the current Finance Minister in a recent interview clarified openly that second year of the government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is dedicated to tax reforms and ease of doing business in the country. How then would this reconcile with the Environment Minister’s refrain of development without destruction? Or is that passé now?

“Ease of doing business” is not without its repercussions. By inviting investments in industry, infrastructure development and power generation, the government has ensured that more and more areas in the country will be opened up for these activities, under any circumstances. This when the country is already replete with narratives of ravaged landscapes, polluted rivers, displaced homes and decades of neglect both by the government and the corporations and lack of rehabilitation of project evicted communities even after 50+ years of the start of industrial projects.

The living histories of fishing shelters around Kandla port or the villages living with coalmines and power plants in Singrauli are testimonies that these are forgotten places – used, tapped and left to their fate. The newer contests in Jagatsinghpur (Odisha), Dzongu (Sikkim), Korba-Sarguja (Chhattisgarh), Mundra (Gujarat), Jaitapur (Maharashtra) and many more are contemporary accounts of why people don’t want to give up their homes, habitats, livelihoods and at the same time stand up for the environment they depend on.

But in all, they bring out clearly what the undeterred quest of industrial and infrastructure expansion and growth can do to places. Poor living conditions with water contamination, depletion of ground water, no financial security, poor health facilities, lack of access to government schemes are only a few realities. This along with people being stuck between not finding jobs in the industrial complex and don’t have access to the forest, farms, grasslands or fishing grounds they once worked on. Where they do, the land is uncultivable, forest denuded or fish catch dismal.

What is spoken about as “ease of business today” was mildly termed as strategic, economic and political reasons when project after project was granted approval by the ministry of environment, when the UPA government was in power. Setting up of extra constitutional bodies like Cabinet Committee on Investments (CCI) and their instructions to approve projects of national importance or critical for growth had become part of everyday business. When the approval for diverting forests in favour of Mahan and Chhatrasal coal blocks in Madhya Pradesh was granted, the then Minister Environment, laid it out thick in the file nothings as to what the pressures of granting approval were. The reason for not waiting for critical ecological and hydrological studies was because a specialized Group of Ministers had directed the ministry to expedite the approval for the mines.

And this is when another voice, knocks at my doorstep. This time from Mundra in Kutch district of Gujarat. At a discussion when we were trying to understand the length and breadth of environment regulation in India; a simple question came my way? “So, sister… what if the government decides to just do away with all these laws. What’s going to be our recourse?”

Dilutions and reforms to environmental laws and regulations in the country had begun a while back when the National Environment Policy (NEP) was put into place and the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification was re-engineered, both in 2006. Despite widespread opposition the notification was promulgated one day before it was it was to expire. Since then, the process of granting environment clearances has gathered newer questions. Public hearing is now mere consultative exercise to rectify technical assessments and the appraisal process remains even more opaque.

These laws have continued to be tools in the hands of environment and human rights organisations that are also trying to seek remedies from within the fractured framework or as an ally of a localized struggle. Holding the administration accountable, questioning the scientific experts and appealing for judicial redress have been some spaces that these laws have offered.

In the last one year, there have been a series of changes in the regulatory processes for forest and environmental approvals. This, along with the media hype that environment regulations are delaying project implementation and thereby impeding growth, has made issues of environment justice, industry’s favourite punching bag. Ironically it was the same justification, which was used when the NEP and the new EIA notification came into place in 2006. Throughout the UPA government’s second term, the media had helped term environmental issues as green terror.

So, the new changes in environment laws are towards reducing the power to question, by officially appointed experts and participation by affected people. Interestingly, the ministry of environment’s achievements list (as on January 2014) appears to be an assurance note for ease of doing business. At the same time the existing clauses requiring gram sabha consent as part of forest diversion processes or the land acquisition law have either already been axed or are under serious threat.

A few months after the NDA government took charge, on August 29, 2014 a high level committee under the chairmanship of former Cabinet Secretary, TSR Subramanian was set up to review six major environmental laws, viz., Environment (Protection) Act, 1986; Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980; Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972; The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974; and The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.

The Committee submitted its report after a three month review process and suggested a range of reforms that far from allay apprehensions that environment justice might not be on the government’s priority. While the report acknowledges principles of precaution and inter-generational equity, it quickly moves to recommendations which seek to reduce public participation, make judicial remedy more laborious and push for scientific expertise in deciding problems which affect millions. The one big solution remains setting up of a new institutional framework, which continues to inherit regulatory inefficiencies.

The Committee introduces utmost `good faith’ as a principle wherein companies give an undertaking against noncompliance; the vacuity of this suggestion is exposed when we notice that the Committee offers inadequate remedies in form of fines and technology driven monitoring on how to deal with errant companies. This is especially a problem for those that have enjoyed the complete impunity and fearlessness in violating legal clauses and clearance conditions.

Not surprisingly, this is despite written submissions and formal engagements with the committee, which have also pointed out that the primary objective of environment laws is to safeguard the environment and people’s lives. Anyreview process, though desired should not then be retrograde in nature.

In March 2015, I had written in “Civil Society Magazine” that “in this continuous jostle of power and people, courts and judgments, decisions and resolutions, so many small and big battles are being fought. Each, in its own way, will not just transform landscapes but will leave behind a telling tale of whose resistance won and whose persistence lost.” Even as I hold that thought, I cannot help adding a few
more.

When the state machinery fails to safeguard people’s lives, livelihoods and ecological habitats, affected people use their agency and gather together in big and small numbers to resist the change being pushed on to them. Such resistance is most often perceived as being oppositional in nature. But the same word can also mean withstanding. And for that we need to hold our ground. Where we’re floundering, we need to seek new allies; where we’re strong, share our strategies. Once we’ve won, set eyes on the new challenge, and if there is a loss, understand why, to get back in.

There is no choice but to stay in, and up our game.

*The author is an independent researcher. Email: kanchikohli@gmail.com. Also published in PUCL Bulletin, June 2015

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