"The Ministry of Environment and Forests is the nodal agency in the administrative structure of the Central Government for planning, promotion, coordination and overseeing the implementation of various environmental and forestry programmes. The Ministry is also the nodal agency in the country for the multilateral and bilateral co-operation in the field of sustainable development." This is the vision of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) as specified in its Citizen's Charter on its website (http://envfor.nic.in/). This vision, ideally, should allow citizens to understand what role the MoEF can play in safeguarding environmental and social justice concerns, especially at a time when other ministries of the government are going all out to achieve economic development objectives, often unmindful of the consequences.

But how true is the MoEF to this vision? Judging by the changes that are being made to the environmental clearance regime in the country, and the blatant manner in which highly environmentally destructive projects are being granted clearances, the Ministry appears to have abandoned this vision altogether.

MoEF is the nodal agency responsible for the implementation of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification (EIA), 1994 through which 32 categories of development and industrial projects in India seek environment clearances before they can begin construction and operation. But for most corporations, obtaining these clearances has become a trivial irritant at best - the MoEF has happily obliged their requests, even in the face of tremendous public opposition, or overwhelming evidence of the environmental risks in some projects. These decisions have had - and will have in the future as well - significant and irreparable impacts on both the stability of the fragile ecosystems and life forms dependant on them as well as the livelihoods of communities which is integrally linked with these stability of ecosystems (see links in box below).

Not only community groups and environmentalists, even state governments are unhappy about the MoEF excluding them from the draft notification and subsequent revisions.

 •  Rewarding violators with expansion
 •  Expert committees under the lens
 •  NEAA rejecting appeals coldly
 •  An impacted assessment process If, thus far the MoEF has not sufficiently guarded the environment, now it proposes to go one step further in disregarding its vision. The Ministry is now on the verge of 'reengineering' the Environment Clearance (EC) process altogether to suit the needs of investors in a manner that will severely compromise the ecological security of our country and the space for the meaningful involvement of local communities and citizens in the decision making of development projects. The ministry's draft EIA notification was opened for public comments on 15th September 2005 for a period of 60 days. In today's era of electronic democracy and internet-based public participation, MoEF made this draft available on its website. But, to the dismay of many environmentalists, this was only in English.

Concerns with the draft EIA Notification 2005

In 2004, the Ministry issued a note entitled: "Reengineering of the Environmental Clearance Mechanism". This proposal promoted the serious dilution of significant provisions that support accessing information and ensuring participation of the public and affected population, and thereby grossly undermined the possibility of informed decision making. It was guided by the Govindarajan Committee report, 'Reforming Investment Approval and Implementation Procedures', constituted by the then Central government of the National Democratic Alliance, and also influenced by proposals made as part of the World Bank funded Environmental Management Capacity Building Programme. The Govindrajan committee report clearly states, "re-engineering of regulatory processes prescribed under various legislations, regulations, etc., is necessary to simplify the procedures for grant of approvals, reduce delays and ground level hassles, and simplify the regulation of projects during their operational phase." Clearly, the new environmental regulation would be driven by investment-related recommendations; interestingly, Dr. Pradipto Ghosh, who is the present Secretary, MoEF, was a member of this committee.

In the civil society outcry against this new draft notification that followed, there were a number of critical points brought to the notice of the MoEF. A letter signed by 140 organisations and individuals was sent across to the MoEF on 10th November 2005, including some of the points:

  • The explicit and sole objective of the process and the draft EIA notification is to expedite clearance mechanisms to assist investors. Environmental protection and public participation are not a priority.

  • The draft limits public consultation by restricting access to public hearings. It prevents people who are not local residents from participating in public hearings, which is presently not the case. It thereby eliminates the possibility of participation by public interest organisations, public interest scientists and engineers, professionals and advisors to communities in public hearings. It also provides for the cancellation of public hearings in the event that local conditions are not conducive for hearing the views of the public in a free and fair manner.

  • It dilutes the requirement of the process for environmentally damaging activities. For instance, the new draft Notification further eases regulatory and siting requirements for buildings within cities. Only buildings larger than 100,000 square metres built-up area require Central clearance, and construction greater than 20,000 square metres require State clearance. Earlier, all buildings generating more than 50,000 litres/day of sewage or housing 1000 persons required EIA and clearance under the Notification.

These and other concerns regarding the existing as well as draft revised EIA notifications were repeatedly pointed out to the MoEF and the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) since 2004. This was done through concerted and collective efforts that resulted in a series of open letters addressing such issues of critical concern as wildlife conservation, the draft National Environmental Policy, problematic environmental clearance mechanisms, and skewed representation of experts on clearance panels and the re-engineering process. Over 100 experts and environmental and social justice groups endorsed these letters to the Secretary, MoEF. Despite these exhaustive efforts, there was no response from the Ministry and the PMO.

In February-March 2006, over 2600 postcards sent by communities and civil society all across the country to the PMO. These primarily highlighted the total disregard to the involvement of panchayats, local bodies, civil society and communities as a whole in the drafting and finalisation of both the National Environment Policy and the Draft EIA notification. None of these efforts has received a response, either.

Consultations only with industry and Central government

While all these voices were being studiously ignored by the government, who was it listening to? It turns out the MoEF has been primarily consulting apex industry organisations like the The Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Confederation of Real Estate Developer's Associations of India, etc. and central government ministries/departments for the revision and finalisation of the notification. Responding to my Right to Information Application, MoEF has clearly admitted this (See PDF of scanned response, 300Kb). This is unfortunate, as concerns have been raised by various constituencies like community groups, civil society organisations, state governments and so on. MoEF has not considered it important to inform any of these others in the drafting of the notification, nor in the revision of the draft. Instead it has found it important to engage with the industry whose very activities this notification is meant to regulate!

The comments on the Draft EIA notification, 2005 reveal that it is not just community organisations and NGOs who are unhappy with the way the EIA notification is drafted. Many state governments to whom this notification attempts to decentralise powers to state that the notification infact undermines the role of the state governments and makes the EC process cumbersome. (See: here). The construction sector also expressed its concerns with the draft EIA notification, 2005. Without wider consultation, there is reason enough for the draft to be rejected, and a fresh process of plugging loopholes in the existing EC process to begin. Until such a process is put into place, there should be a moratorium on the issue of the present revised version which the MoEF has shared with only apex industrial organisations and central government ministries.

This is completely against the spirit of democracy and decentralised governance. The people, to whom policies and laws are to impact the maximum, have been systematically kept out of its formulation. Discussions are on between the Prime Minster's Office (PMO) and MoEF so that the notification is modified and finalised, as soon as possible. Therefore, there is a need for immediate intervention so the environmentally and socially regressive processes engaged in by the MoEF are reigned in.