Can India harness public participation to drive sustainable development?

The year was 1973. Villagers in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand were being increasingly shut out from forest land, which was being mercilessly destroyed by private contractors hired by the state government. The hacking of trees to make way for roads made the region prone to landslides and left natives distraught. Large-scale migration of the local male population meant the women were in charge in these villages. Angry and struggling to make ends meet, they banded together and launched a non-violent agitation, popularly known as the Chipko movement. The women hugged trees, sang songs and stood tall in the face of officials wanting to cut down one of their primary means of livelihood. And it worked. There were several instances of the government backing down from cutting trees. Some believe the movement also gave impetus to the creation of the Forest Conservation Act (1980) and highlighted the need for a separate environment ministry. In many ways, the Chipko movement showed us the power of public participation and what can be achieved if the government listens to these voices. But that was India then.

The India we see now seems to have stopped listening. Five decades later, rapid, but uncontrolled urbanisation is seeking to muzzle these voices at a time when they should be listened to the most. The most glaring evidence of this is the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification. Environmentalists have pointed out a few contentious clauses in the draft notification — one of them being the shortening of the time for public hearings. This raises a major red flag because such hearings allow those affected by the project concerned to voice their concerns.

If one was to look at such conflicts objectively, it is the marginalised and the poor who stand to lose on both sides of the argument. While on the one hand, environmental damage does affect local populations, shutting down illegal constructions or polluting power plants leads to job loss, usually at the lowest rung of the hierarchy. The only solution that remains is to maintain a balance between the two. But how can this be achieved?

A 2014 study published in the Journal of the Indian Law Institute examined the importance of public participation while granting environmental clearances in India. It identified the ‘extremely limited space’ given to public hearings in the existing EIA regime. The study concluded that the only way to ensure a democratic decision-making process was to include public consultation at every step of the EIA process — this includes screening, scoping and post-clearance monitoring. The study argued that given the limited staff at hand to assess the countless projects in question, native populations would have a much wider and deeper reach and would be able to provide some unique feedback, given their knowledge of the area. 

With the world still reeling from the COVID-19 crisis, the need for climate-resilient infrastructure has never been more apparent. But this cannot become a reality unless we demand a stronger environment assessment process, which requires a robust public voice. This cycle is currently at a standstill and can only move ahead if all stakeholders pedal in unison.