In the following opinion piece, Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli of the CPR-Namati Environmental Justice Program offer their thoughts on India’s environmental regulation plans. The article was originally published on India’s DNA news website.
India’s environmental regulatory failure is now official. Activists and environmental groups had pointed to this much earlier but now all governmental actions and words allude to it. After a long phase of regulatory trade-offs, we are now into “do what you can while you can” or, more technically put, self-regulation. Regulation had promised us economic growth without the pain of displacement, deforestation, and pollution. But now that we have more of these problems than the government can even imagine handling, voluntarism, and private action is the last call to manage this systemic crisis.
For the first time, we have a medical doctor for an Environment Minister. Dr Harsh Vardhan, the third environment minister in three years, took charge of the Ministry on May 22 after the sudden demise of Anil Dave, who held the post for a little over 10 months. Dr Harsh Vardhan’s first statements upon taking over as minister set him apart from his colleagues who had been at the seat before. Rather than obfuscating or denying the massive issue, he has acknowledged that it is a huge problem and that we need to think “out of the box” to deal with it. This is important coming from a minister who also enjoys the reputation of being an honest and public-minded practitioner of his vocation.
His follow-up statements offer little hope of any systemic improvements. On the contrary, all the messages so far have established that faster and more economic growth or developmental projects are the official priority, thus separating the idea of sustainability from development. What seems to have replaced this radical and expansive concept is a “list of doables” to protect the environment. As reported recently, the ministry is collating various personal actions that individuals can take, such as planting trees and conserving water. The minister is reported to have mentioned cycling and “other good deeds” and has reminded citizens that traditional lifestyles hold the key to solving the environmental problem. He emphasised that these actions have to be left to choice and not forced. This is rather surprising coming from the representative of a party that has unleashed a slew of socio-economic measures that critics see as ranging from the despotic to the softly coercive.
All of us may not agree that individuals (as opposed to systems or institutions) are responsible for environmental problems and whether voluntary personal action can solve these. But we might all accept that it is fundamentally problematic if this framework of voluntary environmentalism is also extended to industry.
The Environment Ministry has undertaken environment law reforms to “throw the responsibility primarily on the project proponent”. The committee headed by former cabinet secretary, TSR Subramanian, introduced the concept of ‘utmost good faith’ stating that if given the freedom to do so, individual businesses will respect the law and refrain from violating safeguards. The January 2015 booklet citing the ministry’s achievements emphasises the need to “inculcate habit of self-monitoring” to control pollution. By emphasising project-level actions such as setting up online monitoring of effluents and establishing treatment plants, the government has basically sent out a message that “doable” actions, undertaken by individual units within the confines of their premises, is adequate for environmental protection.
There is no real plan whatsoever to deal with issues such as land-grabbing, waste-dumping, health impacts and accidents because these are not yet acknowledged as a part of the environmental crisis brought on by a growing economy.
Our government has made it clear that delivering economic growth through industrialisation is its policy priority. The first Environment Minister, Prakash Javadekar, aligned the environment ministry to this vision. Now the new minister has placed environmental protection, the very purpose of the ministry, in our hands. Yet again, the government has passed on the burden of systemic failures of regulation to all citizens. This approach is hardly a novelty with this government.