Centre revisits 2014 panel’s proposal on new umbrella green law; what you need to know

Firstpost, October 20, 2021

The move comes in the wake of Centre’s plan to treat this aspect on priority as it figured in the 60-point action plan following the meeting of the Prime Minister with secretaries and ministers last month.

In a bid to give thrust to the drafting of new umbrella green law subsuming all existing environmental legislations, the Centre has revisited the recommendations of the former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian-chaired high-level committee which was entrusted with the task of reviewing and suggesting amendments in environment-related laws in 2014.

“We have been working on amending the Indian Forests Act (IFA) and the Forest Conservation Act (FCA). A consultation paper on amending FCA, 1980 has already been released, seeking inputs from stakeholders. As far as the single Environment Act is concerned, the recommendations of the 2014 high-level committee are being minutely studied,” The Times of India quoted an official as saying.

Why is government revisiting the proposal
According to The Times of India report, though the process to streamline existing green laws through amendments was on for the past few years, the move was triggered by the Centre’s plan to treat this aspect on priority as it figured in the 60-point action plan following the meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with secretaries and ministers last month.

Laws reviewed by the committee
The committee reviewed key environment laws — Environment Protection Act (EPA) of 1986, Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980, Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) of 1972, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974 and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981— to “bring them in line with current “requirements” and objectives. Later, the Indian Forest Act (IFA) of 1927, the colonial law which governs the forest administration in the country, was also added to the list of laws for the committee to review.

What the report proposes
The report recommended formulating a new “umbrella” law to streamline the process of environment clearances for development projects in the country. Under the new proposed Environment Law Management Act (ELMA), full-time expert bodies—National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and State Environment Management Authority (SEMA)—are to be constituted at the Central and state levels respectively to evaluate project clearance (using technology and expertise), in a time bound manner, providing for single window clearance.

The committee has proposed to club the Air Act and the Water Act with EPA. The existing Central Pollution Control Board and the State Pollution Control Boards, which monitor and regulate the conditions imposed on the industries to safeguard environment, are proposed to be “subsumed” by NEMA and SEMA once the new bodies come into existence.

Under the new project clearance mechanism, the report says, GIS reference maps, combined with use of multilayer data captured through satellite imagery for relief and topography, hydrology, including underground water resources, soil characteristics and settlement patterns would be used for preliminary screening and speedy process of project clearance applications.”

The report also recommends that an “environmental reconstruction cost” should be assessed for each project on the basis of the damage caused by it to the environment and should be dovetailed with the cost of the project.

It proposes a National Environment Research institute “on the lines of the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education” to bring in the application of high-end technology in environment governance. To bring qualified and skilled human resource in the environment sector, the committee has recommended creation of a new all India service— Indian Environment Service.

The committee has not suggested any major changes in the forest laws but has recommended revision of the compensatory afforestation policy.

Expert flags concerns
Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta said that the biggest problem with ELMA was that it was in complete violation of the “precautionary principle”. “The act wanted to bring in management and supplementary plans to regularise violations as opposed to preventing environmental violations,” a Hindustan Times report quoted him as saying.

He added that while the act was not notified, these changes were introduced by the ministry through a number of office memorandums and circulars in the past few years.

“For example, under the garb of exempting projects of national importance from certain clauses, hydrocarbon exploration has been exempted from public hearings last year. Similarly, projects that have started in an ecologically sensitive coastal zone without permission can now pay up for restoration. These changes are all in the same spirit. So is the controversial draft environment impact assessment notification 2020,” he told Hindustan Times.

He said it is practically impossible to subsume all environmental laws in one act/legislation.

“It has never happened anywhere in the world and it not only impossible to draft such a legislation, but implementation will also be impossible” The Times of India quoted him as saying.

Why was the report rejected
The department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology chaired by Ashwani Kumar, that was reviewing the report instead recommended that the government should constitute a new committee to review the laws.

The committee precisely noted that some of the essential recommendations made by the panel “would result in an unacceptable dilution of the existing legal and policy architecture established to protect our environment”.

According to Down to Earth, Sushmita Dev, a member of the Lok Sabha and Standing Committee, said while some of the observations of the committee were important, the recommendations failed to amount to the complexity of the issue.

In January 2015, a number of experts, including members of civil society organisations and non-profits, had deposed before the standing committee. Considering their concerns and recommendations, the standing committee noted that the three-month period given to the committee for reviewing six environmental Acts was “too short”. It recommended appointing another committee by following established procedures and comprising acclaimed experts in the field who should be given enough time to enter into comprehensive consultations with all stakeholders so that the recommendations are credit worthy and well considered.

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