When Indian finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that India’s economy will be revived through a review of laws, along with labour, liquidity and land, there was little doubt that environmental regulations would be a prime target. Even though the FM may have been alluding to forthcoming changes, she is only providing a COVID-tinge to a movement that is well in motion. India’s push for improving its ‘ease of doing business’ indices has come at the cost of environmental regulations and implementation for a while now. While economists have continued to argue over the true value of the Indian government’s purported ₹20 lakh crore economic stimulus package, there is little doubt about which way the wind is blowing when it comes to environmental considerations in matters of economic revival.
What makes the Centre’s lack of appetite to make sustainability a feature of any economic revival even more worrisome is the quiet, but rapid relaxation of environmental regulations in the country. Experts are concerned about the rushed manner in which environmental and forest clearances were given in a virtual meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) on April 7, 2020, to 31 proposals affecting 15 tiger reserves, sanctuaries, notified eco-sensitive zones, deemed eco-sensitive zones and designated wildlife corridors. The projects were cleared after considering each for a grand total of 10 minutes. Environmentalists and conservationists even wrote to environment minister Prakash Javadekar in early May, urging him to stop the clearances during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the Modi government has been approving such projects ever since it first came to power in 2014. In the past six years, the government has approved more than 270 projects in and around Protected Areas (PAs), according to an IndiaSpend analysis. The same report mentions how the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has approved 2,256 of the 2,592 proposals that it received for environment clearance, including the 278 projects in PAs, between July 2014 and April 24, 2020 – that adds up to a clearance rate of 87%, according to the analysis. For comparison, environmental clearance rates between 2003 and 2014 was around 70%. Ironically, the high approval rate of projects has featured in lists of achievements of the MoEFCC, reaffirming the transformation of regulatory authorities into mere clearance desks.
The uncertainty surrounding the national lockdown over the past two months has only seemingly catalysed project clearances further. According to the meeting agendas posted on the ministry website, 191 projects have been identified for clearances by various expert appraisal committees. The proposals include Etalin hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh, mining blocks in Dehing Patkai in Assam and the Central Vista project in New Delhi, among several other big-ticket infrastructure, mining and energy projects. The railways, too, has been exempted from environmental clearances for 13 of its projects that are likely to adversely impact a national park, a tiger reserve, a tiger corridor and wildlife sanctuaries across the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Goa.
States, too, seem to have taken the cue and are rushing to push through approvals even as the country is hobbled by lockdown restrictions. In Hyderabad, for example, the State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) issued clearances to 57 projects in its first meeting since the lockdown this month. The projects include real estate ventures, stone and metal quarrying projects, and sand mining projects. The Karnataka government, too, cleared the controversial Hubbali-Ankola railway line, for which close to two lakh trees are expected to be cut in the biodiversity-rich Western Ghats region. Interestingly, the central government is yet to notify eco-sensitive zones in the Western Ghats despite finalising the area in 2018..
On the procedural front, new Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) norms put forth by the government conveys the Centre’s intentions regarding environmental regulations. The timing of issuing the draft, which waters down provisions laid down in the 2006 EIA notification, is curious considering that the amendments had been first proposed a year ago. While the notice period for public consultations has been reduced from 30 days to 20 days, the draft notification also includes the relaxation of the provisions for submissions of self-compliance reports from six monthly to yearly. Further, almost all categories of construction activity have been exempted from conducting assessments and ‘detailed scrutiny’ by expert appraisal committees.
The most significant change in the draft notification, however, is the ex post facto clearance. What this means is projects that have already started operations without getting necessary clearances – which includes construction, installation, excavation and production – can be legalised when the draft notification comes into effect. Experts describe this as an attempt to legalise the violations committed by the project proponents. While the government has extended the deadline for sending in objections and suggestions to the draft notification from May 22 to June 30, it is hard to imagine how stakeholders, such as the tribal and coastal populations, can register their objections considering their limited access to technology and other means of communication, especially amidst the chaos of the lockdown.
This move to dilute environmental norms is compounded by India’s abysmal record on implementation and monitoring. An audit of the MoEFCC by the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India in 2016 found serious deficiencies in the monitoring of conditions attached to the provision of environmental clearances. The audit also revealed that not a single project proponent had been penalised for violating such conditions. The likely failure to implement emission standards for thermal power plants, which have also been now allowed to use coal with high ash content, even five years past the first deadline of 2017 is case in point. Incidentally, LG Polymers, source of the recent deadly gas leak in Visakhapatnam, was found to be operating without a valid environmental clearance as well.
The dilution of India’s environmental norms is steeped in the logic that environmental protections are a deterrent to investment. However, this premise itself has been found to be unproven if not fallacious upon closer analysis. “We should currently be focused on how to alleviate the immediate crises for migrants and the loss of livelihood, and how to do that in a way that gives us better environmental and social outcomes in the long run. I don’t see how environmental regulations are the constraints to get back our economy on track and diluting them may not give us desired economic results in the short term and definitely not in the long term,” said Navroz Dubash, a professor at the Centre for Policy Research.
An extensive study of empirical evidences of the economic impact of environmental regulations, included in the 2016 Handbook of Environmental and Sustainable Finance, concluded that the adverse economic impacts of environmental regulations are not only exaggerated, but they could also have positive impacts by spurring efficiency, innovation and competition in industry. In fact, there isn’t much in terms of evidence to show that dilution of environmental regulations leads to any spike in investments either. “There should be no roll back of environmental laws and regulations. In fact, it might turn out to be counter-productive as I believe environmental regulations and implementations might actually be good for business in many ways,” noted Mahindra Group’s chief sustainability officer Anirban Ghosh, when asked how industry viewed recent developments. India’s progressive erosion of environmental laws since 2014, including the introduction of major structural changes to expedite clearances and industry-friendly amendments to key pieces of legislation, have not translated to any noticeable growth in investments in the country.
The flip side though, in terms of environmental damage and vulnerability, could be considerable, especially considering the likely increase in intensity and frequency of natural disasters and other impacts of climate change. From a climate perspective, dilution of environmental norms is a double whammy. On the one hand, lax regulations and unvetted clearances could pave the way to diminished mitigation potential with incremental losses of forest lands and continued violation of industrial emission standards. At the same time, degradation of ecosystems due to lack of protection will likely increase the destructive potential of climate impacts such as extreme weather events and sea level rise. Biodiversity and habitat loss due to development projects will also likely add up in the absence of robust regulatory safeguards, potentially raising risks of zoonotic infections in the country. The floods in Uttarakhand in 2013 and in Kerala and Karnataka in 2018 are the most destructive in an exhaustive list of recent examples where poor environmental planning compounded the damage of extreme events.
Assaults on environmental regulation by India’s government over the past six years betrays an abject lack of understanding of the conception of these protections. Environmental regulations are after all nothing but legislative responses to the risks that society faces from any development. The erosion of these safeguards serves only to transfer the costs on to society in terms of assumed risks. While India might still cobble together the numbers to satisfy international climate commitments, any gains will be wiped out several times over if regulations fail to address and account for the risks of industrial development borne by the environment and society. Unfortunately, in its desperation to woo industry, India is overlooking a hefty and compounding cost on its future.