EJ Matters Vol 3. Issue 9: Environment Ministry Proposes Comprehensive Dilution Of India’s Environmental Laws & More..

Vol 3. Issue 9

ESG Features

ESG – INHAF WEBINAR Series 

This is the 25th year of the Environment Support Group (ESG). Through this year we will be conducting a series of events that would reflect on our journeys and provide us with new insights on the path forward.  

INHAF-Habitat Forum invited us to conduct a series of webinars on the many dimensions of urbanisation. We found it exciting to make these reflective of ESG’s work and chose three themes for this: Waste and Governance, Challenges of Securing Urban Commons,  and Mobility and Infrastructure. Accordingly, we will be organising at 5PM on every Thursday through July, starting on the 7th of July, webinars on these themes. And this will conclude with a final synthesis webinar.  

Everyone is welcome to participate.   Please register so we can send you details of how to join these events.

 

Fundamental dilution of Environmental Laws and Jurisprudence of India proposed

Vishakapatnam LG Plant Gas Leak

There has been systematic dilution of India’s forest and biodiversity protection laws for several years now.   But the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change now proposes to fundamentally change the essential characteristic of India’s environmental jurisprudence with fundamental changes that it proposes to India’s umbrella environmental law, the Environment Protection Act, 1986, and also the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991. 

All of India’s environmental protection laws are based on criminal jurisprudence. Which is why every one of our Central and State laws relating to environmental conservation, pollution control, wildlife protection, biodiversity conservation and forest  protection have graded provisions to tackle violations with criminal and civil punishments. This jurisprudence has evolved since the early 1970s as environmental violations in India have serious and often irreversible consequences to life, liberty and quality of environment and biodiversity.  India also is a country with the worst record of industrial and pollution disasters, and the 1984 Bhopal Gas Crime is the worst industrial disaster ever.

Now, the Environment Ministry proposes to whittle down several provisions of all these laws that require criminal punishment of violators, and turn them merely to civil violations. Which means that violators can pay a fine and get out of the crime.    

Such dilutions have been taking place since the rule of National Democratic Alliance under Prime Minister A B Vajpayee and through the United Progressive Alliance. For instance, the confounding amendments to environmental impact assessment regulations in 2006 diluted public involvement in environmental decision making and created a whole new network of environmental parastatals, yielding to pressure from investors and the World Bank who wanted a pro-business environmental regime as had been proposed in the Govindarajan Committee on Investment Reform (2002).  There were also gains made, such as through the Right to Information Act, 2005 and Forest Rights Act, 2006, and later under the leadership of Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh unprecedented deep democratisation of environmental decision making through public consultations on legislative and policy changes, and also on the question if India must allow Genetically Modified Foods (in the B.t. Brinjal case, with Ramesh issuing a moratorium on its clearance).  

Over the past 7 years, there have been systematic efforts to comprehensively dilute India’s environmental jurisprudence. This began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first major policy decision, setting up the TSR Subramanian Committee to propose changes to all environmental laws.   The reforms proposed were all pro-investor, and there was nation-wide outcry. See: INDIAN GOVERNMENT’S HIGH POWERED COMMITTEE REPORT ON REFORM OF ENVIRONMENTAL LAWS.  This was followed by the Envtl Laws Amendment Bill, 2015 which again was blown back by public pressure. See: Comment/Criticism Of The Draft Environmental Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2015, Circulated By The Indian Environment Ministry On 7th October 2015 For Public Comments. )

 

Thereafter was the  attempt to dilute forest laws with the Draft National Forest Policy, 2018.  This again was met with massive public resistance and the Parliamentary Committee of Environment and Forests recommended the policy be shelved. See: Peoples Movements, Networks, Academicians, Researchers And Civil Society Organisations Reject The Draft National Forest Policy 2018. And further an attempt to weaken the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1981.  See: MOEFCC Must Withdraw Consultation Paper On Amendments To The Forest (Conservation) Act. And then there was the comprehensive dilution of EIA Notification, which once more was pushed back by public pressure.

 

The current proposed amendments to four major environmental laws, are effectively a big step away from India’s long held statutory tradition of protecting environmental and natural resources and is a clear indicator of prevailing priority: putting business and commercial interest over environmental protection and safeguarding human rights.  The draft Bills were put out on 1st July 2022 by the Ministry in English, not any of the other Scheduled languages, and the commenting period ends on 21st July 2022.  Never in the history of India has there ever been such a rush to put interests of international and national business empires over that of peoples of India and its biodiversity.   

Also read a note by Leo Saldanha of ESG on how such dilutions of environmental regulatory regimes are globally promoted, and especially propelled with the recent decision of the US Supreme Court.      

9K or ವೊಂಬತ್ಕೆರೆ Campaign

To build ecological, public health, and socio-economic security in villages and towns across Karnataka, it is critical that our water commons are protected, and as though they are sacred zones. With this focus, Environment Support Group (ESG) is working with Karnataka State Legal Services Authority to improve functional capabilities of District and Municipal Lake Protection Committees, agencies that provide immediate assistance in protecting and reviving water commons.  To protect and rehabilitate Kere (Lake), Katte(Bund), Kunte (Pond), Kalyani (Sacred step wells), Kaluve (Canal), Kesaru (Wetland/Soil), Kavalu (Pastures), Kaadu (Forest) and Kayaka (Livelihood) in your villages, cities and towns, join  ‘‘Vombatkere – ವೊಂಬತ್ಕೆರೆ ’ – 9k Campaign. Click here. 

Majestic Grasslands Destroyed by Tree Plantation Drives 

In the late 2000s, 10,000 acres of open natural ecosystems, traditionally known & protected as the Amrit Mahal Kavals, were diverted surreptitiously to create a ‘science city’ – essentially a military-industrial-nuclear complex.  This was challenged by Environment Support Group on behalf of local pastoralists and farmer in the National Green Tribunal (NGT).   Alternative Law Forum took up the issue on farmers’ behalf before the Karnataka state High Court and Supreme Court. 

NGT in its  final order ruled that these projects needed to conform with the rule of law, even if they are ‘projects of national importance’, and thus directed them to secure environmental and forest clearances.  Besides, the Tribunal directed that water resources would not be destroyed, traditional pathways would not be blocked, local community access to cultural, animistic and religious centres would be respected. Moreover, the remaining 3000 acres of the Amrit Mahal Kavals were protected against any diversion, and it was mandated they would be protected as Open Natural Ecosystems.  

Yet, more than a decade later, while the ‘science city’ has taken shape in bits and pieces and in the most unscientific way, and much of the land diverted remains unused, ungrazed and thus has been taken over by woody and thorny Prosopis, the grasslands and local lake ecosystems have been disturbed, even destroyed.  The Forest Department and some local religious groups have taken over 1500 acres of the Kavals and planted them with trees, with the intent of planting at least 1 crore trees!  And in the remaining 1500 acres of original grasslands, Forest Department has  planted Cassia sps. All of this has wiped out local agro-pastoral livelihoods, besides disturbing the local ecological landscapes. 

The grandeur of the grasslands – once strikingly similar to Masai Mara in Kenya, and which served as an habitat of the Great Indian Bustard, Lesser florican, Indian Wolf, the Blackbuck and more, is now being turned into a densely packed wooded ecological nightmare. Such dense plantations will also result in high rates of evapotranspiration, which in an arid zone that Challakere is, would mean the groundwater aquifers are likely to deplete faster.  See pictures from a recent visit.

Cubbon Park

ESG mobilised peoples from across Bengaluru to fight against the construction of a hotel complex and denotification of Cubbon Park in 1998.  A decade later, we mobilised public attention against a tyrannical move to impose Electronic ID cards to enter the park – Bengaluru’s peoples park, the most critical and inclusive commons. We were successful in ensuring the park remained open to all publics. Though, some private enclosures, such as the Lawn Tennis Association Club managed to slip in. 

 Proposed Statue to be put up at Cubbon Park

Now, M/s Bengaluru Smart City Ltd, Horticulture Department, Balbhavan and the Fisheries Department’s Aquarium have undertaken various engineering projects within the park that is likely to turn this sylvan space with its distinctive subtleties and inclusiveness into an over-engineered, commericialised, commodified and ticketed park, in which the working classes, minorities and the poor are likely to be left bystanders.  Besides, a winged horse and an open air fitness circuit is being proposed inside the  Park by M/s Razor Pay and Swissnex India respectively.  In fact, a “stakeholder consultation” called on Sunday, 3rd July fails to meet the standards of public consultation and obtaining consent required per the Principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent.  The Fisheries Department proposes a major revamp of the Aquarium. If all these developments were to fructify, the park may turn into a major traffic zone and may well become a car parking zone, create a complicated web of traffic snarls in central Bengaluru, and worse, destroy the distinctively simple and quiet characteristic of the park

Poster:The invitation circulated by Swissnex fails to meet the standards of public consultation and obtaining consent required per the Principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

All this could well be in blatant violation of the Karnataka High Court’s final order dated 13th August 2001 in WP 32232/1998, and the following is a relevant extract:

“An apprehension has been expressed by the learned Counsel for the petitioners that in future, there could be further notifications deleting some more areas and resorting to constructions over such areas and in course of time there is every likelihood of the Cubbon Park area being diluted. It is submitted that the preservation of lung space in a busy city and maintenance of parks is essential for the health and recreation of the public and there is no guarantee that the Government will not resort to a subterfuge to overcome the provisions of the Government Parks (Preservation) Act. Sharing the concern of the Petitioners for preservation of as much open space as possible and the need to develop the parks, we direct that no further constructions (other than those referred to supra) shall be made covering the open area within the limits of the park specified under the Notification of 1998 without obtaining the clearance from this Court for proceeding with fresh constructions.”

ESG has raised these issues with relevant regulatory authorities and appropriate action is expected to be taken.  

In a related development, Karnataka’s first differently-abled children’s play park gets ready at Jawahar Bal Bhavan. ESG’s Leo Saldanha stated that not just parks but all public spaces should be made accessible to people who are differently abled and it is not right to make children conscious of their disabilities by designing a special place and separating them with the “abled persons”.

Nallur Tamarind Grove: An Ecological Treasure In Need Of Conservation

The Nallur Tamarind Grove, Devanahalli, Bengaluru

The Biological Diversity Act, 2002 was born out of India’s commitment to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) 1992 which recognizes the sovereign rights of states to use their own Biological Resources and protect them for the benefit of future generations. Besides, responsibility is cast on local communities and governments to conserve biological resources. The Nallur Tamarind Grove, in fact, is a unique first in the country biodiversity heritage site – declared so in 2007.  This grove which is close to the Bengaluru International Airport, and threatened by ever expanding mega infrastructure projects and urbanisation all around,  is in a real peril now due to neglect and lack of maintenance writes Bhargavi Rao of ESG.  On raising issue over the abysmal state of  Nallur Grove,  Karnataka Forest Department appears to have decided to act

Designing a Low Energy Home  

Climate change solutions often tend towards the production of renewable energy through large solar and wind plants. As human civilization settles down comfortably into a lifestyle of energy and product consumption, we lead ourselves to believe that we can become green by just shifting the source of energy generation, unwilling to fathom that unnecessary product and process creation is the underlying issue writes, Janani S of ESG.

Environmental Concerns

Climate Change

Delegates representing more than 100 Parties to the Paris Agreement met in Bonn, Germany last month, to prepare key decisions for the upcoming UN Climate Conference (COP 27) in Sharm el-Sheikh(Egypt).  The proposal by India and other developing countries that a loss and damage finance facility be established to compensate vulnerable countries for the losses caused by climate disasters, did not make it to the agenda for negotiations at the upcoming climate summit.

In related news, the number of people displaced has been rising over the years due to climate change. A recent report by the UN flags nearly 50 lakhs displaced in India due to climate change.

Forests and Biodiversity

The UN Chief has said that National selfishness is delaying a global oceans deal.  After 10 years of talks,including a fourth round of negotiations three months ago, no deal has been reached. A 5th round of talks to be held soon will be the hope for an agreement for the UN Global deal for the protection of the oceans.

Pollution

The use and manufacture of several single-use plastic products is banned from July 1, 2022. In line with centre’s decision, Himachal Pradesh has launched the .Single Use Plastic Buy Back Scheme

Urban Development

In April 2022, the Himachal Pradesh government unveiled a major development plan for Shimla. In 43 years Shimla is at high risk of earthquakes and landslides. However, the effectiveness of the plan is being questioned. Tikender Panwar, former deputy mayor of the city and an urban planning expert, told Mongabay-India that the plan was simply a lost opportunity. According to Panwar, 90 percent of Shimla is built on risky slopes. He emphasised that the zoning plan of the city from a future development aspect should have been based on careful study of these slopes.

Environmental Performance

Yale has countered India’s claim that the Environment Performance Index report was based on unscientific methods.” Millions of premature deaths occur in India every year due to its poor ambient air quality and this is among the reasons why the country ranked lowest among 180 countrie” , the organisation clarified in the report released May 31, 2022. The data was from the Global Burden of Disease that undergirded the EPI analyses.

Inclusive Cities?

As the new Bengaluru Airport metro rail work is underway, it is observed that the Namma Metro construction is far from complying with the Union Government approved Metro Rail Policy 2017. The 2017 Policy mandates multi modal integration through signing of MoUs between modes of transport, constitution of a United Metropolitan Transport Authority and preparation of the Comprehensive mobility plan, none of which have been followed. 

Powrakarmikas across the State went on an  indefinite strike at the end of June demanding that they are treated with professional dignity and care, that their jobs are regularised and that they receive all benefits due to public servants.  Gathering in thousands at the Freedom Park in Bengaluru and in every town and city across the State, the workers’ struggle was successful as the Chief Minister of Karnataka agreed to most of their demands. The strike was victoriously called off on 5th July 2022. 

Resources

Want to learn how you can contribute to creating a healthier planet? Register  for the free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Ecosystem Restoration by UNDP and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

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