July 13, 2022
Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss whether the Centre’s proposed changes to our key environmental laws weaken them. We also look at the increase in child marriages in Karnataka, among other news.
📰 FEATURE STORY
Is The Centre Diluting Our Green Laws?
If a tree falls in the woods and nobody’s around to hear it, does it make a sound? If somebody commits a crime and doesn’t get punished for it, is it still as impactful? These are the questions that keep us up at night. Evidently, some more so than others.
On 30 June and 1 July, the Centre dropped a few proposals for amendments to some of our vital environmental laws. And like most changes, people have opinions about it. Since the main proposals remove imprisonment as a consequence of the Environment, Water and Air Acts, many have questioned the motives of this move.
And just as you thought we had reached the end of today’s programming, the Centre tried to “streamline the process of approvals” under the Forest (Conservation) Rules. According to them, this is good for business, but others claim it disempowers forest dwellers. In the middle of all this clamour, let’s try to gain some perspective, shall we?
Since the BJP came to power in 2014, one thing has been made abundantly clear – India’s ease of doing business rank, under this government, will reach new heights. This was the acche din our Prime Minister Narendra Modi was talking about. But capitalism is a harsh mistress, and winning her over often leads to a lot of compromising.
At the turn of this month, the Centre announced some changes to our green laws. First came the new Forest (Conservation) Rules that were notified on 28 June. The Centre says the stakeholders will no longer need to approach a gram sabha to sign off on a project affecting their land. This will become an official rule if the Parliament ratifies it in the coming monsoon season that starts on 18 July.
Before, a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the gram sabha involved and the settlement of forest rights, including compensation and rehabilitation, were of utmost importance to build anything in the forest. As of now, Congress and BJP are busy flinging tweets at each other, trying to get them to see the other side.
Then, on 1 July, people caught wind of the amendments to four important legislation regarding the environment, i.e. The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and the Public Liability Insurance (PLI) Act, 1991. While the Centre hasn’t justified any of these moves, policy experts seem divided over the new changes.
For these, the Centre wants to reduce the severity of the punishments meted out to those that violate them. How do they want to do that? Do away with the provision that calls for imprisonment. Instead, the fines the violators pay will go to an Environmental Protection Fund, which will be used to repay the affected parties. Citizens and other local governments have till 21 July to respond to these proposals with their suggestions.
VIEW: Nothing really changes
Some legal experts believe that all this hue and cry over the dilution of laws is misplaced. According to the Centre, these changes are necessary to “weed out [the] fear of imprisonment for simple violations” and are even talking about increasing the fines for a violation. And, apparently, this makes absolutely no difference at all. Pragmatically speaking, it wasn’t like many cases were getting registered under those laws anyway. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, we see around 10 cases filed under the Air Act and another 40 under the Water Act every year.
Besides, the criminal provisions under the Environment, Water and Air Acts were always deemed too complicated to actually work. It isn’t the Acts’ fault. It’s the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) dealing with imprisonment in the country. And the CrPC is known to give the judiciary a hard time in actually fairly adjudicating on time. According to environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta, it takes anywhere from years to decades for someone to get persecuted for their crimes. Compared to this, the civil cases under the National Green Tribunal often find a resolution.
Finally, the Forest (Conservation) Rules. Even though the new rules state that compliance with the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, is not necessary for final approval for a project, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The goal here isn’t to override the FRA. It’s about speeding up the process of approval. The new rules say that, instead of taking one step at a time, i.e. dealing with the FRA first and then getting approved, these steps would take place simultaneously. To ensure the integrity of the new workflow, removing the necessity of FRA compliance for a green light is of utmost importance.
In both cases, the argument of dilution really doesn’t hold up, as nothing much is changing anyway. Even when imprisonment gets removed, the Centre provides for an adjudicating officer who will evaluate the case and come up with an appropriate amount for the fines. The accusations suggest that these new rules undermine the existence of other laws, which it does not. Projects that affect forest land still have to prove that the forest dwellers’ rights are protected. It just won’t have to be done at the top of a project pitch anymore.
COUNTERVIEW: This is textbook dilution
A knight in shining armour has to fight every gnarly fairytale trope to find the princess, and he follows through because that’s what he wants. As it turns out, that’s exactly how humans work, and the Centre’s new forest conservation rules ignore that. A conglomerate interested in forest land for a factory cares only about that cheap and available land. Companies are not your friends, so getting them to act on forest rights without dangling a carrot in front of them is bound to get a lot harder. This is also why the FCA rules said compliance with the FRA was absolutely necessary before any approval was given.
As per a one-page note on Twitter, Congress chief spokesperson and ex-environment minister Jairam Ramesh said that the new rules are sure to put more pressure on state governments to get a project approved than work out its issues. The fact that a NOC will no longer be needed from the gram sabhas affected by a project clearly strips forest dwellers of any power they did have over the use of their ancestral land. The issue is that once approval over a piece of land is granted, “everything else becomes a formality”. Eventually, none of the claims will be recognised.
Coming to the other proposed amendments, the removal of imprisonment could result in a pollute-and-pay mentality, which already exists among certain echelons. You see, big corporations and industries don’t really fear fines, and more often than not, they’re the ones that are polluting the environment. With penalties in place, a company can either refuse to comply or just pay later. The loss the companies have to endure will obviously be a lot less than the actual people affected.
Some have even pointed out that the fund these fines are going to go to may not even work. Several funds have proven themselves to be quite useless when it comes to swift environmental action. Funds like the Compensatory Afforestation Fund and Environment Relief Fund (ERF) have failed miserably in times of crisis. The factors mentioned in the proposal that an adjudicating officer is expected to look at are also lacking. They do not include the harm caused to the ecosystem and biodiversity of the region affected. This sure does sound like dilution.
What’s your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) The Centre’s proposed changes to our key environmental laws weaken them.
b) The Centre’s proposed changes to our key environmental laws don’t really weaken them.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
Kali Faces The Wrath Of A Hindi Colonialism Out To Destroy The Traditions Of Her Followers
For the Left:
Congress Has Reached ‘Enough Is Enough’ Moment. Boris Exit Shows Change Is Good
🇮🇳 STATE OF THE STATES
Task force to handle foreign threats (Haryana) – The state will have a dedicated task force to investigate foreign threats to state cabinet members. State Home Minister Anil Vij said he was monitoring the case personally and is being updated daily. The ongoing investigation of the recent threats is in its final stages. However, the findings won’t be made public due to their sensitive nature.
Why it matters: Recently, five Haryana MLAs, one from the BJP and the others from Congress, received threatening phone calls. The calls came from unknown numbers to their mobile phones with extortion threats. Vij refuted claims of a breaking down of law and order in the state and pointed out that the threats were not from India.
Increased child marriages (Karnataka) – Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a steady increase in child marriage cases. In Karnataka, there has been a three-fold increase between April 2021 and March 2022. Compared to the pre-pandemic era, the numbers have doubled from April 2020 to March 2021. In 2021-22, there were 425 child marriages in the state with the highest in Mandya with 76. According to officials, even urban parents are getting their daughters married off early.
Why it matters: Some have blamed officials for failing to implement the laws properly. It’s almost a century since the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 came into effect. Other laws like the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 and its 2017 amendment have been introduced. As the pandemic set in came economic hardships. It forced parents to get their daughters married early. A 2019 committee formed by the department of women and child development to assess married adolescent girls has yet to hold a single meeting.
Entry of media in schools restricted (Odisha) – In the state’s Dhenkanal and Kendrapara districts, journalists aren’t allowed into schools. Opposition parties have criticised the decision. Congress lawmaker Suresh Routray said it was the ruling party’s way of suppressing reporting on corruption. BJP member Aparajita Sarangi said during his tenure in the education department, no such directive was issued, and journalists were allowed to visit schools to report on violations.
Why it matters: Due to the pandemic, the education system has been thrown into disarray. For journalists, it’s their job to highlight the impact and the system’s failures. School and mass education minister Samir Ranjan Dash said journalists have the right to report, but there were cases of them disturbing teachers during school hours. Officials were asked to report on any unauthorised entry by journalists.
Green fuel for public transport (Maharashtra) – The Maharashtra government is aiming to make the state the first in India to have public transport run on clean fuel. Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis didn’t share any timeline on how this will happen. He also spoke about switching to Electric Vehicles (EVs) to help achieve India’s environmental targets. He said the Maharashtra Road Transport Corporation (MRTC) will soon begin replacing the fuel source for its fleet.
Why it matters: In cities like Mumbai and Pune, the public transport system already has electric buses. In June, the MRTC’s Shivaee bus service was launched. It had the first fleet of electric buses. The MRTC plans to operate six daily services between Pune and Ahmednagar. Each bus has a capacity of 43 with a top speed of 80 km/h.
Scrap vehicles (Assam) – Around 10 lakh vehicles in the state have reached their end-of-life period, i.e., 15 years old or more. They are categorised as unfit to ply and will face scrappage. The government will soon notify the scrappage policy. In the next five years, another eight lakh vehicles will reach their end-of-life period. The policy will be initially effective for five years, and the government will decide on whether it should be extended later.
Why it matters: The government hopes the scrappage policy will help curb pollution and raise the vehicle recycling industry. Assam will be the second state to have such a policy. The owner will get a market scrap value and a certificate of deposit. They’ll also get a 25% concession in the motor vehicle tax when they register a new vehicle.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
$2.6 billion – The value of institutional investments in the Indian real estate market during January-June 2022. It’s a 14% rise year-on-year compared to the first half of 2021. Investments were led by the office sector accounting for 48%.