Wild elephants in India
Decision by India's new Modi-led government to review environmental protection laws is worrying campaigners.Aruna

The climate of change hangs heavily over India's Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) like never before.

The fast pace of changes to India's environmental protection laws, which have been brought in since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, have led to the government being accused of weakening the country's strict environmental protection laws, and of being an agent of the power and commerce industries.

Most recently at the climate summit in New York India's environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, noted that the sole focus of the Indian government was lifting India's masses above poverty through encouraging economic growth, not protecting the environment.

In the name of removing roadblocks to growth, the ministry has been busy making changes and amendments to laws, raising concern among environmentalists.

Major changes have been made in the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2006, issued under the Environment Protection Act 1986.

The EIA notification details the process for gaining permission for activities listed under the notification, starting with public consultation followed by expert appraisal. Most projects were scrutinised at the state and ministry level.

Now some projects have now been placed under the oversight of state regulatory agencies, removing the ministry's role. Others have had the need for consultation removed.

Many projects have been exempted from the EIA's purview.

'Category B' projects which required approval from an expert committee of the Environment Ministry, if they were located within 10km of a national park, sanctuary, critically polluted area, or ecologically sensitive area, now only require approval if they are located within 5km.

Public hearings under EIAs have been reduced to a farce, according to experts. For instance, on 28 July the ministry, on the urging of the coal ministry, amended the EIA notification, so coal mines with a certain existing level production that required a one-time capacity expansion from having mandatory public hearings.

Major laws being reviewed

Most worrying has been the ministry's action to set up a six-member committee to review the country's five major environmental laws – the Wildlife Protection Act, Environmental Protection Act, Forest Conservation Act, and the Air and Water Pollution Acts – to bring them "in line with current requirements to meet objectives".

Given such a major task, that the committee has only been given two months, while citizens only had until today to leave comments on changes on the ministry's website, which were limited to just 1,000 characters, is seen as an indication of where this review is heading.

At one of its public hearings in Bangalore, the committee came under a heavy barrage of queries from various NGOs representing the public. The chairperson TSR Subramanian, a former union cabinet secretary, walked out, apparently irked by the questions thrown at the panel.

Earlier, he informed the gathering that the panel had a mandate to propose changes to the laws that would help improve the quality of life and the environment.

He said the need to ensure development was the primary concern, as India is very poor – he claimed 80% lived in poverty – and thereby it is essential to streamline environmental clearance processes that are seen as thwarting growth.

Another member voiced concerns from the industry about how environment and forest protection laws were delaying the start of projects.

Rather than proposing planned changes and seeking public opinion, the committee has sought to change the public's views about their its proposed changes in the laws.

The vague terms of reference have conveyed the impression that the public meetings were paying lip service to the law and the public's expectations.

The ministry should come out with a white paper on what changes it proposes, and constitute a committee with experts from various sectors, says Bangalore-based Environment Support Group (ESG).

The timeline for consulting for such a major review has to be reasonable, says Leo Saldanha of ESG, noting that the laws the government is seeking to change affect the rights to life and livelihoods, and a clean environment.

Wildlife Angst

In July, Javdekar's ministry constituted a National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) and passed most of the 140 pending proposals through its standing committee, with the minister saying projects would not be held up due to "frivolous" reasons. These projects included dams, roads, power lines and canals, inside and around protected areas.

The NBWL is the country's top body for wildlife conservation under the Wildlife Act. But the board did not have the required representation of 10 environmental experts who were nominated by the central government, as mandated by section 5A of the Wildlife Protection Act.

The Supreme Court stayed the decisions of the NBWL's diluted standing committee, following a petition challenging the board's constitution.

The Wildlife Protection Act protects the nation's 660-odd Protected Areas, which take up less than 3% of India's geographical area.

Lauded for its vision, the Act aims to "protect wild animals, birds and plants… with a view to ensuring the ecological and environmental security of the country."

The question facing the citizens today clearly is: who will protect these acts?

Fortunately for the environment, the Supreme Court has been a watchdog down the years, striking down many major projects, including mining projects that have caused havoc in the biodiverse hot spots of the Western Ghats.

More recently, the court struck down all 214 coal blocks allotted by the government to companies indiscriminately, in what is hailed as a landmark judgement.

But how often can the Supreme Court intervene in this manner?

India, which has an exemplary set of laws designed to protect the environment, seems to have more learning ahead for its political leaders – that development and environment conservation can and must be inclusive.

With a population increasing past 1.2 billion, which is aspiring for better living standards, environmental conservation is even more important today. Sustaining the needs on a limited, fast-vanishing resource reserve will require the needs of environment conservation to be woven firmly into any growth plan.