India’s Modi dismantles environmental safeguards

The prime minister’s right-wing government has launched an aggressive campaign to push his pro-business neoliberal agenda at the expense of environmental laws.

The right-wing government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stands accused of using the Covid-19 pandemic to water down important regulations that guarantee environmental safeguards and fast-track projects aligned to its neoliberal economic policies. The Modi regime has sought especially to dilute the country’s environmental assessment rules. This, environmentalists and activists argue, will prevent public oversight, normalise the approval of projects without environmental clearance and deprive affected communities of mechanisms to voice their concerns or objections.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has proposed changes to the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process, which was originally designed to safeguard the country’s diverse ecology. In March, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued a revised draft policy on evaluating the environmental impact of large projects. The draft EIA notification, which is meant to replace the 2006 regulations currently in use, will legally grant industrial, mining and infrastructure projects access to land, water, forests and other environmental resources, or reject them based on environmental viability.

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Among the many changes, the draft proposes a mechanism to legitimise some actions currently listed as violations, such as projects starting construction without a valid clearance. It also expands the list of projects exempted from public consultation, a crucial part of the EIA process.

The draft proclaims a contentious decrease of the time allowed for public consultation on assessments. Currently, the public has 30 days to peruse EIA reports, but the new draft reduces that to 20 days without any justification. “Making these reports available less than three weeks before the public hearing will make it very difficult for people to verify the contents of EIA reports. This is of great consequence since the quality of EIA reports in the country has been poor in the past and the consequences of that have to be felt by the public,” notes a report by the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based public policy think-tank.

Analysts point out that the changes allow potential violators to get their projects regularised by simply paying a penalty. “The proposed amnesty to be granted to illegal projects​, as proposed by the draft notification, negates the very purpose of the EIA, which is to try and ascertain social and environmental risks of a project before it starts functioning,” the centre’s report argues.

Threat to forests, wetlands and people

It concludes that the new legislation will exempt a long list of projects from requiring public consultation, establish a weaker post-clearance compliance system, and exclude many ecologically significant areas that are protected under the Indian Forest Act 1927 and the Wetland Conservation and Management Rules 2017, as well as other ecologically fragile areas not recognised under them. The draft also dilutes the reporting requirements by reducing the frequency of environmental compliance reports from bi-annual to annual.

According to HuffPost India, the draft also potentially allows real estate developers to circumvent spending on activities that help the people and environments adversely affected by their projects. At present, it is mandatory under the corporate environment responsibility rules for developers to bear the cost of such activities, which include solid waste management facilities, rainwater harvesting and even social welfare measures, in addition to other obligatory conservation measures that emerge from the EIA process.

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Researchers Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli provide an interesting perspective on the EIA, underscoring that since its adoption in 1994 the regulation has been “a thorn in the flesh” of both corporates and environmentalists. While businesses have seen it as an instrument to hinder access to the country’s natural resources, environmentalists have felt that it legitimises environmentally degrading projects because the rejection rate has been nearly zero.

“The EIA has become the government’s classic extraction device. It is needed to wrest resources from the collective control of communities and hand them over to project proponents supportive of the government,” the researchers write, adding that the 2020 proposed version tries to do the same and “renovates” the EIA for the worst.

Draft sparks dissent

The proposed bill evoked widespread criticism and the environment ministry received thousands of negative comments that make the case for either more time for public consultation or the withdrawal of the draft. It also caused internal dissent in the ministry, with officials expressing their reservations over the proposal. “Now you propose to make regressive changes to the EIA notification at a time when we simply cannot respond to your call for public comments. Is this democratic? Is this fair?” reads an internal ministry note summarising public feedback.

To curb the growing public dissent over the proposed EIA rules, the government blocked the websites of at least three prominent youth-led environmental advocacy movements – Let India Breathe, Fridays For Future and There Is No Earth B – that were leading online campaigns against the contentious draft.

Fridays For Future, the Indian arm of the global climate movement started by Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg, issued a statement saying it had recently initiated a feedback process for the draft but access to the website had been restricted since 10 July. Indian Police had initially invoked India’s draconian anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to justify banning the website but later withdrew the order. Let India Breathe said in its statement that its website had been rendered inaccessible on 29 June. The websites were disabled by the National Internet Exchange of India, a public sector company chaired by the government’s secretary of information technology. 

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The move to block the websites has been deemed an unprecedented act of “internet censorship” aimed at preventing the public from receiving information that is critical of the Modi regime’s attempts to severely tweak environmental laws and other green policies. 

Questioning the decision to bring the amendments “when the country is coping with a pandemic”, the National Alliance of People’s Movements, a nationwide civil rights network, in its statement called the draft EIA notification “anti-people, anti-nature and against the spirit of the Constitution”, asserting that the BJP government’s only aim is to “further weaken environmental regulations”.

Over 100 environmental researchers, activists, ecologists, conservationists and former members of various authorities such as the National Board for Wildlife, Project Tiger and the Forest Advisory Committee have signed a letter with a detailed critique of the notification and urged the Modi government to withdraw it. 

BJP’s assault on the environment

Critics argue that the government’s push to approve industrial projects even during the pandemic is consistent with Modi’s pro-business stance. For instance, an analysis by the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment shows that from January to June 2019, a key panel overseeing wildlife sanctuaries and parks approved 63 of 70 development proposals, resulting in reduced protection for 216ha of land.

Between 2016 and 2019, an estimated 7.6 million trees were cut in India. For instance, in December 2019, an estimated 40 000 trees were felled after the Modi government granted permission to divert forest land for an opencast coal mining project in Talabira in the eastern state of Odisha, displacing hundreds of local people in the process. In the northern state of Uttarakhand, about 25 000 trees were cut in an ecologically sensitive area to build highways to Hindu pilgrimage sites. 

Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar has unswervingly outlined that the BJP government would improve the “ease of doing responsible business” in India and ensure a faster clearance of projects.

Government data reveals that India’s environment ministry has given clearance to 2 256 of the 2 592 (87%) proposals it had received in the past six years. The government has also approved over 270 projects in and around India’s most protected environments, including biodiversity hotspots and national parks, since July 2014.

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In 2018, the ministry proposed major changes to the National Forest Policy, announced a draft Coastal Regulation Zone notification and came up with new rules for plastic waste management. In 2017, it tweaked wetland rules to consider salt pans to be “wetlands’’, a move that potentially opened up sensitive lands in western parts of India for economic activity.

In July 2019, the environment ministry exempted 13 railway projects spread over 800ha of land in four states from seeking environmental forest permits. At least four of the projects would damage sensitive areas, including a national park, tiger reserve, tiger corridor and wildlife sanctuaries. Prior to this, the ministry issued a circular to all state governments that the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, which prohibits the use of any forest land for non-forest activities without prior approval of the central government, will not apply to doubling of track and gauge conversion projects if the land is railway land and was under non-forest use prior to 1980.

Unhindered by lockdown 

Since the lockdown, the Modi regime has approved at least 49 industrial projects. On 23 April, it rushed the approval process for the 3 097MW hydro-electricity Etalin project in Arunachal Pradesh, a disputed Himalayan state bordering China in India’s far northeast. Located in the ecologically and culturally rich Dibang valley, it is one of the country’s largest proposed hydro projects and came up for “green clearance” during a virtual session of the forest advisory committee.

Although Modi has publicly advocated for clean power and committed to increasing India’s renewable energy target to 450GW as part of a stronger climate action plan, his government, in January this year, passed an ordinance to amend the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act of 2015 to open up the coal sector for commercial mining to all local and global firms after easing restrictions. 

Under the new provisions, Modi launched the auction of 41 coal blocks, many of which are located in dense forests in Central India. Challenging this decision, the Jharkhand government has approached the Supreme Court of India to halt the auction. The Chhattisgarh government has raised red flags over blocks being located in biodiversity-rich forests spanning across an elephant reserve.

Since June, the BJP government has also allowed the extraction of mineral blocks without environmental clearance in the disputed Kashmir region, which was opened to outside investors for the first time following the revocation of the region’s autonomy.

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“Since the BJP came into power in 2014, it has put ‘operation dismantle’ into motion,” writes Rajeev Suri in Down to Earth magazine. “The BJP scarcely conceals its contempt for the environment, working assiduously to dismantle environment protection which is considered an impediment to development and a stumbling block in the path of ease of doing business.” 

Suri underscores that “while laws have and are continuously being diluted, tribunals and adjudicatory bodies carry the ignominy of dubious application” of such laws as well as “inimical judgments”. “The craven environment minister in his abased effort to earn encomiums from the saffron leadership has reduced environment clearances to a compression of days for the ease of doing business syndrome and not for its impact to the environment,” he concludes.

The biggest statistical evidence of India regressing under the Modi regime lies in the 2020 Environmental Performance Index­, which ranks the country 168th out of 180 countries, behind all South Asian nations except Afghanistan, which scored the 178th place.

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