Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change: A Promise and A Problem

On the occasion of World Environment Day, June 5, 2016, this blog post looks at one big potential or promise of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), and its one big problem.

Before going onto the theme, one clarification. This blog does not attempt any comprehensive review of the MOEFCC over the last two years. It does not attempt to critically evaluate important developments like introduction of new regulations, or the consistent dilution of many regulations and practises. This post deals with only one promising development at the MoEFCC and one serious problem.

Potential – Focus on Compliance

In several interviews and press releases in the last week of May 2016, on and around the occasion of completion of two years of the NDA government, ShriPrakashJavdekar, Minister of State (Ind. Charge), MoEFCC has repeatedly stated that for the next three years, his focus will be on compliance of environmental laws. (See for example, ‘Focus Over the Next Three Years will be on Compliance of Laws’: Javadekar’, Press Release of MoEFCC/PIB, 23 May 2016).

This is a most welcome focus, and has the potential to transform the environment of the country. India has some good environmental laws, but compliance is pathetic. Many laws are blatantly violated, and action is rarely taken. This has created an atmosphere of impunity and an ethos where non-compliance is the norm. Compliance (rather, lack of it) is one of the biggest problems and one of the biggest challenges in the country.

For example, one of the biggest menaces in the country is the ash which is produced when coal is burnt. Yet, last year (2014-15), some 82 million tons of it was just dumped in form of slurry in massive ash ponds, or in dry dumps or just discharged into rivers. (See Figures 1 and 2, for example).

New Bitmap Image

Figure 1: Fly ash dumped in the open near people’s houses. Odisha.Photo, Shripad Dharmadhikary, Manthan.

Ash drain

Figure 2: Google satellite image. Fly ash dumped into Kesla River (DengurNallah) which meets the Hasdeo river. Korba, Chhattisgad.

Thus, an emphasis on ensuring compliancecould be a game changer.

The most important means of achieving compliance seems to be technology driven.  MoEF’s document titled “New Initiatives and Efforts 2014-16” says:

“In  arevolutionary decision, highly polluting industries were mandated to install 24×7 air/effluent monitoring devices. This has ensured constant monitoring and its tracking.

“Out of 3400 polluting industrial units identified, more than 2400 industries have already installed the mechanism and the results are encouraging. If pollution norms for any parameter are exceeded continuously for more than 15 minutes, SMS alert is generated and sent to all concerned individuals/ regulatory agencies.

“650 industries have been closed down based on these inputs.”

The same document also claims that industrial pollution in the Ganga has gone done by 35%.

These figures, if true, indicate not only very high levels of fulfilment of required environmental instrumentation, but also a demonstration of strong political will. Both would be welcome changes in the Indian law enforcement experience. But a given our historical legacy, the common person can be allowed a certain amount of scepticism, and hence it would be important for media and other independent organisations to confirm these levels of compliances.

Supporting this will be a new legislation that is to bring in more stringent punishments for violations of environmental laws, though there are reports that it is already being diluted, even before it has gone to the cabinet.

Further, there are a few points to be noted in this regard.

  1. The emphasis seems to be overwhelmingly on use of technology, and to some extent officialdom to ensure compliance. This can be very limiting. It is imperative that the common people, the affected populations and concerned citizens be also involved in the process. To this end, full transparency in the matter is an important first step.
  2. To ensure transparency, it is necessary to make available all the data from the continuous monitoring devices to the public. This can be done best by putting all the data on a publicly accessible website.
  3. SMS alerts of non-compliance can be sent to local community representatives, sarpanch apart from officials and regulators.
  4. It is critical that the locations of the monitoring points (along with their latitude-longitude coordinates) should also be made public. This will have several benefits. For one, local people will be able to clearly identify the discharge points of emissions and effluents, and hence any illegal discharges. (For example, see Figure 3,). Second, knowledge of the locations of monitoring points will allow juxtaposing all such points in area and help achieve synergies in monitoring as data from multiple points will be available in an area.
  5. Another important point is that compliance cannot be only about pollution and hence 24×7 Continuous Effluent/Emission Monitoring Systems can only be one part of ensuring compliance. There are many conditions given as a part of environmental clearances which do not pertain to pollution – for example, ensuring environmental flows in rivers below dams – and different mechanisms to ensure compliance in such cases will be needed.


Figure 3: Showing a discharge from the back wall of a power plant, north of Chennai, to mangroves and wetlands. This is likely an illegal discharge point since the Environmental Clearance clearly mandates another discharge point. If the discharge locations of the plants are made public, then it would be easy to identify whether such discharges are legal or illegal. Photo: JindaSandbhor, Manthan.

The most important component of any compliance mechanism remains political will. This is what the MoEFCC is actually promising when it says it will focus on compliance during the next three years. Possibly one test of this would be  whether MoEFCC is able to clean up some of the most polluted areas in the country (many of them part of MoEFCC’s own designated Critically Polluted Areas) including areas like Korba, Ennore, Dhanbad, to name a few.

We see the promise of compliance as one of the biggest potentials / promises of the MoEFCC.

The Problem – Skewed Understanding of Environment, Downplaying  its Importance

The biggest problem with the MoEFCC – and that predates this government, though it has possibly been aggravated in the tenure of the current regime – is the attitude of the MoEFCC to environment. One is that the MoEFCC has internalised the criticism that it is blocking “development”. The second is that again and again, MoEFCC betrays a lack of understanding what “environment” and “environmental protection” really means.

It is ironical that the ever since the NDA government has come in, the achievement that  the MoEFCC itself considers as its most significant one is that it is no longer a “road block” ministry. On the occasion of completion of two years of the government too, MoEFCC’s statements have focused on how in the last couple of years it has significantly brought down the time taken for clearance (from 600 days to 190) without compromising on environmental norms, how it has given 2000 clearances unlocking investments of Rs. 10 lakh crores, and how it is no longer called the “obstruction ministry”.

Of course, it is no one’s case that the MoEFCC – or any other ministry for that matter – should become an obstruction in the process of development. But at the same time, no ministry should devalue its own agenda. The problem is that the MoEFCC has internalised the propaganda that any caring for environment means working against development, that environment protection is essentially only the formality of clearances and that protection of the environment does not need time and effort.

No one will complain if a bank takes its time to evaluate a project to decide whether to finance it or not. If a large project takes several years for its engineering design to be finalised, it’s called due process. Yet, if environmental assessments take time, then it is seen as obstruction. Indeed, given the quality of current environmental impact assessments, what is needed is more diligence, and possibly more time for assessments, not less. Further, in many cases, the time taken by the environmental clearance process comes due to the bad quality of assessments. So, while by all means environmental clearances shouldbe expedited, there is a limit beyond which the process cannot be compressed.

The MoEFCC now wants to reduce the time for environmental clearances (EC) to 100 days (See, for example, Interview of ShriJavdekar to Business Standard, 17 May 2016).  It is not clear whether this time is measured from the date that all assessments and other procedures like public hearing and submissions of final EIA are completed. If this is the case, there is nothing new in the announcement. The EIA Notification 2006, which governs the environmental clearance process, already requires that the Expert Appraisal Committee complete its appraisal within 60 days of receiving the final EIA, and place the recommendation to the MoEFCC for final decision within next 15 days of this.  The MoEFCC has to take a decision within 45 days of this. Thus, as such, even now, the decision on environmental clearance has to be taken within 120 days of the final EIA being submitted. So MoEFCC is promising to cut down all of 20 days.

However, if it means that the EC will be given within 100 days of application – then it is a worrying sign. As such, impacts areas of major projects should be studied for at least one full year, to ensure baseline and other studies covering the full cycle of all seasons.  There could also be cumulative impact assessments needed if more than one project is coming up in an area. Then there needs to be the public hearing, and consideration of the issues raised by public and their incorporation into the EIA. Thus, even if the entire process is carried out with full efficiency, it would need considerably more time than 100 days. Any cutting down on these times would mean a compromise on  environmental norms.

So the MoEFCC needs to clarify what it means exactly when it says it shall reduce the time of granting EC to 100 days.

The problem is that by being so defensive about the time it takes to give environmental clearances, the MoEFCC is directly and indirectly supporting the mindset which sees environmental clearance as a mere formality and environment protection as an add-on at best.

On the contrary,  one expects the MoEFCC to fight fiercely to ensure that everything needed for environmental protection is given its rightful place.

Another – and related – issue is that the MoEFCC view of environment does not seem to go beyond the issue of “clearances”. It needs to have a broad framework and understanding of what environmental integrity means. It needs an understanding that rivers need to flow, that forests and habitats needs to be contagious, that we can interfere and extract from the environment only to a certain extent and not more. It needs to distinguish between faux environmental protection and genuinely maintaining and restoring environmental integrity.

This is illustrated best by how it views what constitutes forests. In the interview to Business Standard published on 17 May 2016, Minister Javdekarsays:

“You have only 21% forestland. That won’t grow. But our target is 33% forest cover. So treecover outside the forest has to grow. So a major thrust is on agro-forestry and making treecover outside the forests. We have already partnered for growing forests along the highways. … I see forest growing along all highways, railwaystracks and Ganga even in agro-forestry in next 10 years because we are guaranteeing that anydensity of plantation you do and tree cover you grow that will not be declared as forests –that is the only promise I am making – they can harvest they can do movements.”

In other words, the Minister equates road side plantations – and moreover, plantations which can be “harvested” anytime – with forests. Literally a case of missing  the woods for the  trees!

With such skewed way of looking at environment, even the best of efforts of the Ministry will not lead to environment protection. Rather, we may end up with facades of good “environment” – like roadside plantations!

There is an urgent need for the MoEFCC to internalise a more ecological and people-oriented view of what is environment, and come out defending that more strongly. Not doing so is the biggest problem and drawback to the Ministry’s efforts in the coming years.