On the day of completing one year in office, the Environment Minister of India is inaugurating a tree plantation drive in schools, neighbourhoods and degraded sites across India. Noble intent, you may declare. But whether there have been any strong, path-breaking decisions in favour of the environment since he took over calls for a deeper analysis.
A war room strategist who carries considerable political weight within the ruling party, Bhupender Yadav replaced Prakash Javadekar as the country’s Environment Minister exactly one year ago. The first big challenge for the Minister was managing expectations. There are many lobbies that push and pull on policy, especially the industrial lobby, who in the pretext of ‘doing business’ want most environmental laws to be done away with. It is this lobby that perhaps exerts the maximum pressure on the office of the Environment Minister and ensures how long he/she stays on.
A war room strategist who carries considerable political weight within the ruling party, Bhupinder Yadav replaced Prakash Javadekar as the country’s Environment Minister one year ago.
One of the first significant steps that Yadav took was to ensure that the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 was translated into all languages.
But then, as weeks and months progressed, one has witnessed brick by brick the virtual collapse of all environmental safeguards.
A series of changes were introduced in various environmental regulations that had the stamp of industry all over them.
Yadav carries considerable political weight within his party to introduce strong policies on the environment and stop the dilution of environmental laws. Yet, this hasn’t happened.
A Virtual Collapse of Environmental Safeguards
So, let's take a deep dive into the many twists and turns environment policies, rules and regulations have taken since Yadav took over. One of the first significant steps that Yadav took was to ensure that the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 was translated into all languages to ensure accessibility for all stakeholders in different states to share their feedback. This was a good step. But then as weeks and months progressed one has witnessed brick by brick the virtual collapse of all environmental safeguards.
A series of changes were introduced in various environmental regulations that had the stamp of industry all over them. The most significant has been the dilution of the Biological Diversity Act (2002) to facilitate the AYUSH industries. The BDA, by its very essence, was one of the first progressive laws that empowered communities to control and use biological resources. But an amendment introduced in Parliament in December 2021 by Yadav sought to undo all this and instead empower industry at the cost of communities.
Ritwick Dutta, who has closely critiqued the amendment (and is incidentally also a co-author with the Minister on one of the most exhaustive books on environmental law), argues:
“One of the most problematic parts of the Bill is the exclusion of codified traditional knowledge from the purview of the BDA. Given that Ayurveda, Unani, and Siddha are codified, farmers, forest dwellers, and tribal people who collect or grow biological resources for use by the AYUSH industry and other industries/sectors will no longer be regarded as benefit claimers, and consequently, no monetary and non-monetary benefit will accrue to them.”
The other significant change proposed in the Bill is to decriminalise offences under the BDA. The amendments in a law meant for communities seem to benefit only the corporates, no one else.
Is the Ministry Really Committed?
And then there was the effort to make Environment Impact Assessment more efficient at the state level by introducing a ‘star rating ‘programme, in January 2022. It was decided to incentivise the State Environment Impact Assessment Agencies (SEIAA) through a rating system, based on efficiency and timelines in the grant of environment clearance. It was made clear that the SEIAA that clears projects in the shortest period of time, has a high rate of clearance, and seeks fewer “essential details” will be ranked the highest. And so, in the past, if the SEIAA asked for a field visit or the creation of a committee to get more data, now that same SEIA would get a bad rating for doing its job.
Scrapping the instrument of a public hearing for coal mining projects that were expanding up to 50% of their capacity, and allowing eco-tourism activities such as white water rafting in forest areas, are all examples of dilution of law in favour of commercial interests.
The job of the Environment Minister is to shape and manage policies that will help safeguard India’s environment. In the last year, one has expected the Environment Minister to announce that one big policy announcement in favour of biodiversity, or anything that shows the Ministry’s commitment to preserving biological diversity over everything else.
A Comparison With Jairam Ramesh
One cannot help but compare him to his UPA predecessor Jairam Ramesh, who announced a series of measures like the ‘Go-No Go’ areas for coal, or the creation of institutions like the National Green Tribunal. Sadly, for Ramesh, he did not have the political support within his party to back the decisions he was making.
And here is where Yadav has an obvious advantage over Ramesh – he carries considerable political weight within his party to introduce strong policies on the environment and stop the dilution of environmental laws. Yet, this hasn’t happened.
The ongoing effort to bring back the Cheetah to the Kuno national park, which was, in fact, prepared as a second home for lions (while conveniently ignoring a Supreme Court order) shows where our political will lies.
On the positive side, one has seen Yadav visiting a number of national parks and sanctuaries and familiarising himself with the challenges of protecting these areas. Yadav has scored well in safeguarding India’s position at Glasgow, even if it got him bad international press in the process. At Glasgow, he was firm, resolute and accessible to all journalists reporting from there, though fiercely guarded in what he shared with the press.
Given that the ‘Panchamrit’ formula had already been set forth by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Yadav’s work was limited; he had to ensure no red lines were crossed.
In the drama that ensued in the last 48 hours at Glasgow, Yadav was on the floor with world leaders, seen holding his own.
This is only Year One for the Environment Minister. One hopes that he will exercise the political weight he carries within the party to introduce bold decisions for the environment in the coming years and take on the more wicked problems such as air pollution or polluting industries breaking the law.
(Bahar Dutt is an award-winning journalist and a conservation biologist. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)