Indian government favours industry over environment

The National
Publication Date: 
Sunday, 4 January 2015

NEW DELHI // The Indian government is clamping down on environmental groups while easing regulations to spur industrial growth, say green activists and climate change groups.

The government has ordered greater scrutiny of the bank accounts of four American environmental NGOs since December, but has not given a reason.

Avaaz, Bank Information Centre, the Sierra Club and now need home ministry clearance for every transfer of funds from overseas.

Similar scrutiny was placed on Greenpeace in June, soon after prime minister Narendra Modi took office. Responding to a legal challenge by Greenpeace, the home ministry told the Delhi high court in October that group was working against “national interest” by opposing government policies that it felt could damage the environment.

Greenpeace defended itself in a letter to the home minister, Rajnath Singh, from Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International.

“Greenpeace India’s work is strongly rooted in India’s legislative framework,” Mr Naidoo wrote, “and involves ensuring that existing laws to protect India’s environment ... are upheld and strengthened.”

A government committee set up in August to bring environmental laws “in line with current requirements to meet objectives”, has recommended replacing environmental impact assessments (EIAs) with a system of “utmost good faith”.

This means a company can get state clearance for a new project on the basis of a declaration of its environmental impact, instead of the government conducting its own study, and will be penalised if it is later found to be in breach.

“The government isn’t being shy about it,” said Ravi Chellam, a Bengaluru-based conservation scientist. “The pace and certainty with which it is acting shows that it clearly believes that environmental concerns are slowing the pace of economic growth.”

Environment experts like Mr Chellam are also worried about other tweaks to existing laws over the past six months.

On Monday, the government bypassed parliament to issue an ordinance that will make it easier for industries to acquire land for defence and infrastructure projects. The order, which will have to be ratified by parliament when it reconvenes, eliminates the need for social impact assessments — the norm for public-private partnership projects, giving activists less time to lodge protests.

The environment ministry has lifted a moratorium on new industrial activity in areas considered to be “critically polluted” and has allowed industrial projects to come up within five kilometres of protected forest areas, halving the earlier limit.

The government is also seeking to suspend a rule under the 2006 Forest Rights Act that requires “prior informed consent” from tribal village councils before any forested land in their territories is cleared.

Mr Modi’s government has pushed through such directives in haste because it is under pressure to spur economic growth and investment, said Parth Shah, an economist and founder of the Centre for Civil Society, a non-profit think tank.

Mr Modi based his election campaign last year on a promise to boost the economy.

“I personally thought Modi would bring some new thinking to the old dichotomies of growth versus environment, urban versus rural, and so on,” Mr Parth said. “Unfortunately his government has followed the same trade-offs, like sacrificing environment to benefit growth.”

The National Green Tribunal, the government agency responsible for providing “speedy environmental justice” did not respond to requests for comment.

Activists say India’s environmental regulations have always been lax. Under the previous Congress-led government, fewer than 3 per cent of NEW project PROPOSALS were rejected because of environmental concerns, according to Sunita Narain, the director of the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based advocacy group.

“The last government killed the environmental clearance system by making it so convoluted that it stopped functioning,” Ms Narain wrote in an article published in September. “It was not interested in reform or strengthening the capacity of its regulatory agencies.”

Mr Modi’s government, she said, “is doing what the [previous government] did, but without any pretence”.

The environmental clearance process is also riddled with corruption.

The government committee’s suggestion that industries undertake self-certification, for example, is intended to cut down on companies bribing government inspectors for clearances.

However, previous experiments with self-certification and self-monitoring have failed.

Early last year, the Central Pollution Control Board ordered companies in 17 industrial sectors to install their own sensors to record emissions from smokestacks, air quality around their manufacturing units, and effluent standards at water discharge outlets, and to submit this data to the board.

But an investigation by the Economic Times newspaper, published on December 1, found that “tampering with the instruments is rampant”.

“Given our existing capacity challenges and our track record, self-certification is very unlikely to work in the Indian context,” Mr Chellam said.

Penalties for violations might hurt offenders, but they would do little to reverse the damage done, he added.

“It is very difficult and expensive to restore the environment and ecology once degraded and destroyed,” he said. “Extinction is forever.”