Focus should be on legislative changes not procedures for project appraisal
Mukul Sanwal | May 28, 2014
World Environment Day held since 1972 in the month of June stimulates awareness of the environment and enhances political action. After a period of forty years the international scientific community is calling for a deeper involvement of the social sciences and considering human-environment interaction not in term of trade-offs to protect nature but how best to serve society for the longer term transitions to urbanization, infrastructure development and manufacturing.
The establishment of the Supreme Court mandated national regulator for appraisal, approval and monitoring of environmental and forest clearances is part of an outdated framework, and requires moving away from improving processes to policy changes.
First, the environmental clearance system itself is to be redesigned. The objective of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, is the “prevention of hazards to human beings, other living creatures, plants and property”, and was designed for chemical and physical agents that have already been emitted, the nature and degree of impact is understood and can be monitored. For infrastructure projects, instead of asking the question ‘what action can be taken given the risk’, the approach should be to ‘maximize social and economic benefits with as little environmental harm as possible’, with a longer term perspective for restoration of the area by monitoring implementation of standards through satellite imagery. For example, the annual reports of the companies involved should incorporate adherence to environmental safeguards and the annual report of the ministry, discussed in parliament, should include assessment of the local impact of mega infrastructure projects.
Second, in the Forest Rights Act and Rules community forest rights include “sacred trees, groves and ponds or riverine areas, burial or cremation grounds”, leading to the Supreme Court placing the POSCO project in the Nyamagiri Hills before the gram sabha for their “active consideration”, and subsequent rejection. Tribal traditions and symbols should not be defined in terms of legally enforceable rights; the temple of Abu Simbel was shifted for the Aswan Dam.
The legislation unfortunately also provides that tribal rights in forests are subject to “resettlement or alternative packages” only for “critical wildlife habitats” and the joint parliamentary committee report noted land acquisition would be needed for large development projects; this distinction needs to be reviewed.
Third, the tensions inherent in forest policy present a special set of issues for resolution. While the national forest policy in 1894 stipulated that “the claims of agriculture are stronger than the claims of forest preservation”, and the national forest policy of 1952 ensured that the “country as a whole is not deprived of a national asset by the mere accident of a village being situated close to a forest”, the forest policy of 1988 declared “environmental stability” as the primary goal whereas in a growing economy, the goal should be ‘sustainable development’, to avoid intervention of the courts.
Another problem is that while reserve forests were “demarcated”, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, did not adopt an ecological definition and “declared” even barren areas as forests, doubling the forest area. In Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Uttarakhand and Arunachal such areas far exceed the area under reserve forests, affecting mining and hydro power projects. Protected Areas cover half the area of ‘reserve’ forests, and separate forest clearances should be required for infrastructure development only in these 668 areas. In no country is a separate forest clearance required outside of specifically designated ecologically sensitive areas. In other forests areas environmental clearances should list the number of trees to be felled as that is the only “environmental’ concern there. With wood providing one-third of the energy used, forest cover cannot be the reason to stop coal mining when imported coal raises electricity prices by a third, and over the last ten years the total area under forest cover has reportedly increased.
Fourth, the political economy of land acquisition is even more complex. The earlier displacement of villagers had largely been for irrigation projects which provided alternative livelihoods to those affected. The situation changed with the reforms of 1991. The state began acquiring large tracts for private sector mining, power, industry, highways and urbanization where the price awarded to farmers was not fully compensated by limited rehabilitation. Large scale development also created a land market accentuating the resentment. The answer lies in defining rehabilitation more broadly; China provides cheap electricity, builds link roads along with highways and is constructing 36 million apartments by 2015 for low-income families.
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