Citizens’ involvement in environmental issues has to be enabled through access to information

Delhi-Smog

By Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon*

In the last two months, the government has publicised three documents that can shape the environment and forest governance in India. Interested citizens have been given a few days to read and respond to a draft forest policy, amendments to the 2011 Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification and the draft National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) put out by the Environment Ministry. There is much to be said about the content of these documents. However, the overlapping time frame and the manner in which these participatory processes have been set up has made it very challenging and even counterproductive to engage in these exercises.

A policy, a law, and a programme 

The draft forest policy was made available on the ministry’s website in mid-March. The policy is focused on raising commercial plantations. It undermines two major gains of the last few decades; understanding forests as a complex ecological system, beyond their timber value and recognition to community-led conservation through new legislation. The timeline to receive comments was one month, starting March 14.

The draft amendments to the 2011 CRZ notification are presently open for comments. The proposed changes encourage real estate, tourism and other infrastructure development on the coast. These could significantly alter the existing land use on the coast, especially common use areas like fishing or grazing. The Ministry generated these amendments through discussions with expert committees and state governments.

The third document is the NCAP that has been drafted in response to widespread demand by citizens for long-term action to reduce air pollution. The government has put out its two-year vision in this proposal. There are several long-term scientific studies and technological models proposed, with a few steps as targeted measures to combat the high levels of pollution.

Facile participation

Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio declaration acknowledged, “environmental issues are best handled with participation of all citizens concerned, at the relevant level.” But this participation has to be enabled and facilitated through appropriate access to information and adequate deliberation by signatory governments. The approach of the current Environment Ministry does none of the above.

The Ministry has put out these three documents, seeking written comments within the proposed tight timeframe. However, these documents are fully formed drafts that are based on a number of assumptions and make very specific suggestions on how to move forward. Such documents are not open-ended and seem already invested with ministerial backing. This makes it difficult to critique the fundamental premise in them. It also pushes citizens into acknowledging these as ‘a good start’, ‘a first step’ in the interest of enabling a dialogue. Instead, deliberative discussions on the main issues, gaps or problems would allow greater public engagement and generate a wider set of perspectives that would be otherwise unavailable to the government. For example, the 2011 CRZ notification was drafted, following a series of public meetings to discuss various aspects of coastal governance. These were organised in 2009-10 by the government, in collaboration with an NGO.

Public participation based on deliberation requires long and careful discussions before decisions are taken. But the advantage of these processes is that there is greater acceptability of the final outcomes. The Environment Ministry can still consider building into its approach, wide public consultations on these key governance issues. At present, the process of review is extremely short and there are no options, but to communicate through written responses. The draft forest policy and the draft NCAP are open to comments for 30 days and the CRZ amendments have a 60-day review.

Participatory processes also involve accountability of those who have engaged in it. The Ministry’s review mechanisms are set up as a one-way street. The call for public comments in the present form creates an illusion that anyone with access to these documents can become a part of reforming environment law and policy. But there is no obligation on the part of the government to tell citizens how their comments were dealt with. This has a negative effect on public participation itself in the long run as fewer and fewer citizens find such processes a worthwhile exercise.

Social legitimacy

Citizens are pushing the limits of the space available to them by engaging parliamentary committees, organising public debates and staging public protests to demand wider deliberation before these documents can be finalised. If the government limits participation to the idea of time-bound written comments, it may be able to meet the mandatory, but narrow legal standards of participation. But its decisions run the danger of lacking social legitimacy.

Public participation is a sign of a healthy democracy. It means going beyond the events of elections to genuinely collaborate on policymaking and governance.

*With CPR-Namati Environment Justice Programme

This article first appeared in DNA


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