The environment law that mobilised two million Indians

Soutik Biswas
India correspondent

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, India's CO2 emissions is predicted to roughly double by 2040

In the Indian capital, Delhi, officials are sifting through some two million emails sent by people venting about a draft environment law.

The 83-page draft law - called the Environment Impact Assessment - has whipped up an firestorm of online protest. India uses this law to assess the potential impact of a development or industrial project on the environment.

Critics say the new draft limits regulation of and public hearings over large infrastructure projects, exempts some projects from public consultation and promotes investor friendly profit-generating projects with faint understanding of their social consequences, among other things.

And that's not all. The government has also been blamed for trying to hurry through the crucial law during a lockdown. The draft was announced on 23 March, two days before the lockdown began, and originally the last date of accepting comments from the public was 30 June. After protests and the intervention of the courts, the date was extended to 11 August. "The rule says public consultation on any such draft is limited to only 60 days. We extended this to 150 days in view of the pandemic," says Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar.

The draft was also made available in only two languages - English and Hindi - ignoring the many languages spoken by people who would be impacted by it. There were allegations of muzzling public dissent: three websites run by environmental groups that were collecting and sending emails of objections to the law to the government were blocked without reason for weeks together. "Our site was down for 26 days when we were in the middle of the campaign. At the end of it we had collected 300,000 emails against the law," says Yash Marwah, 25, of LetIndiaBreathe, one of the blocked sites.

India began making environmental clearance mandatory for expansion or modernisation of a range of projects - mining, power plants, river valley, roads, highways, ports, airports, factories - in 1994. More than 100 countries use similar regulation to check damage to the environment.

Since 2006 the law has been has been changed 55 times, mostly under previous administrations, Mr Javadekar told me recently. "To do away with the confusion we decided to bring an new draft, incorporating all those changes, and bring more clarity [to the law] after 15 years," he said. In a previous interaction, the minister said: "We are not changing the law."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Solar power has seen the strongest growth among renewables

But this doesn't reassure campaigners and experts. They say large projects have already found a way to bypass impact assessments. They point to the example of a 900km (559 miles)-long highway in the landslide-prone Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, which avoided the scrutiny of the law by slicing the road into several projects, each of which was less than 100km. Highway projects exceeding 100km require environmental impact assessment. They also say big projects are not being allowed proper scrutiny by scientists and the public.

In 2009, researchers Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon combed through environmental compliance reports submitted by 223 projects, a sample selected out of some 4,000 large projects approved till then, such as coal mines, dams, irrigation, big industries, real estate and township projects.

Aptly titled Calling The Bluff, their study found over 90% of the projects had not complied with conditions that came with the clearance, like planting forests, for example. "The government believes it is not its role to enforce compliance. They just try to nudge projects into doing the right thing," says Dr Menon, a senior fellow at the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research. "The system isn't working."

Mr Javadekar insists the government wants to "balance growth with protection of the environment". He points out that India's green cover has grown and renewables made up "37% of our installed energy". When he became India's environment minister in 2014, he says, he found "every defence project stalled" because environmental clearance had not been given by the previous government. "We prepared a list of the held up defence projects and approved them within a week," he said.

Experts believe the government often assumes that the public, egged by campaigners, always looks unfavourably at big projects in their neighbourhood. When Dr Menon examined public hearings for hydropower projects in the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh between 2009 and 2015, she found that several people in the area were supportive of the dams, but also had other demands like building of bridges and schools, jobs and land reforms. But people felt that authorities were not willing to accommodate these demands.

Image source, AFP
Image caption, Fourteen Indian cities feature on a list of the world's 20 most polluted.

It is not clear what will happen after the two million responses to the draft law are considered. The draft could be discussed further with wider consultation or put into cold storage. "All the objections and suggestions will be noted and considered and then we will finalise," Mr Javadekar says.

But the most heart-warming thing will have to be this massive online mobilisation, say campaigners. "The amazing response is clearly a sign of how concerned people are. The pandemic lockdown has possibly given a lot of people a different experience of the world around them. They experienced blue skies and less pollution," says Dr Menon. Fourteen Indian cities feature on a list of the world's 20 most polluted.

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