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Q&A: How legal empowerment advances environmental justice in India

In India, mining, industrial development, and other private and public projects
damage the environment and endanger the livelihoods of local communities. Despite robust laws on the books, there is a very poor record of compliance. Paralegals on the Centre for Policy Research-Namati environmental justice team support communities to understand and use the law to find remedies when projects violate regulations.

This interview with Vidya Viswanathan, Director of the CPR-Namati Environmental Justice Program, explores the current state of environmental justice in India and how legal empowerment efforts work to create a
fundamental shift in the environmental regulatory framework.

Q. What is the current environmental situation in India? How do industrialization and development projects affect the environment and livelihoods of people in the country?

A. The environmental situation in India is worrisome. With every passing day, our country is exhausting its natural resources in an unprecedented manner, gutting the ecology and triggering adverse impacts on the lives and livelihoods of communities that are dependent on it.

Facts and figures corroborates this worrisome trend. India was recently ranked 177 out 180 countries in the Yale-Columbia Environmental Performance Index. As per studies, 7 out of the 10 cities with the worst air pollution on earth are in India, while 275 out of 445 rivers in India have been officially declared polluted. These figures reveal just the tip of the problem.

As a result of rapid industrialization, our environment is under tremendous pressure, which not only affects our ecosystem but adversely impacts health, livelihoods, and living conditions for many communities. We are witnessing a steady rise in the number of industrial projects getting approvals and clearances with looser environmental regulations in place, exposing fragile habitats and critically vulnerable ecosystems to corporate greed. In the last three years alone, almost 20,000 hectares of forest land has been diverted for infrastructural development projects.

Having newer projects is only one side of the problem. The other part is the poor track record of environmental compliance by existing projects and industrial units. Most industrial units are often in non-compliance of environmental regulations, further deteriorating environmental conditions for the communities living nearby. And these instances of non-compliance are hardly brought to books by responsible regulatory institutions, leading to indiscriminate violations on the part of projects with virtual impunity. At this rate, it is just a matter of time before we will reach a point of no return in terms of saving our environment.

Q. Why are current solutions inadequate or short-sighted to address environmental justice challenges in India?

A. The current action in the field is mostly led by civil society and the affected communities, and these would remain inadequate till the government acquiesces to support these measures to save the environment. The lack of political will to address climate challenges can be seen through the series of dilutions made to environmental regulations that favour the ease of doing business by the corporates in the country. Even the solutions proposed by the government e.g. National Clean Air Action Plan, lack the intent and the intensity or scale required to tackle the environmental issues threatening the survival of our country. We need more commitment and resources from the government in order address the current problem.

Q. How do you use legal empowerment to address these challenges?

A. In the absence of stronger commitment from the government, we are empowering people with knowledge of the law and the ways to use it to protect their rights and remediate their problems. With this approach, we aim to demystify the laws and bring it into the public knowledge of the communities, which is hardly the case. The laws are deliberately kept and crafted far away from the common man, so that its used by powerful interests for their own benefit. We aim to close this gap by bringing people closer to the laws and the regulatory institutions, so that they can push the state to protect the environment and safeguard their rights and make it more accountable towards people.

Q. What are some strides that have been made using legal empowerment to address environmental injustice?

A. Through this work we feel we have brought people closers to laws and regulatory institutions which are meant to protect their rights. We have also activated regulatory institutions which were previously dormant or existed only on paper. People have been creative about using laws or engaging with institutions to remediate the environmental issues they have been reeling under. This work has strengthened the trust and created an interface between people and the institutions to collaboratively work towards crafting remedies for environmental concerns.

Q. Why is it critical for the people most at risk of environmental injustice to be empowered to know, use, and shape the law? Why is it key for people, not powerful interests, to be at the center of justice systems?

A. Affected communities are often missing from this entire debate of environmental crisis and the need for effective regulations. It is usually considered to be a fiefdom of environmental experts, lawmakers and sometimes even the corporate lobby, while affected communities having the most intimate relationship with these ecosystems are intentionally kept far-way from these discussions. This continuous absence of community voices from the entire regulatory systems have led to skewed mechanisms that protect the needs of the powerful while exposing the masses to environmental injustice.

Hence it has become critical to create those spaces within law and its practice for affected communities, to voice their concerns and informed opinions, and to democratise the environmental governance system for the sake of the country, planet, and future.

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