Drastic Dilution of Environmental Laws: A Non-Issue For New India?

Even as the Central Vista proposal was ushered in, there was no sincere public consultation on it.

5 min read
Assam oil well fire engulfs nearby villages. Image used for representational purposes.

In October 2019, when one saw some of the laughable interventions and additions proposed in the shortlisted proposals for the drastic redevelopment of New Delhi’s Central Vista, it was with fond hope – that this was some ill-advised bureaucrat’s hallucinogen-induced dream – that the actual leaders of a government with a record popular mandate would never dilute their public standing with such absurdity – that is, once they understood its ramifications.

A government, that for the first time, stressed on toilets for all, on national cleanliness, bank accounts for all (facilitating direct transfers and improving it from the famous 15 paise per rupee result as per a previous PM) and gas connections for all (saving our forests and utilising India’s wealth of gas) – thus, articulating matters that past governments had struggled to articulate or deliver – and striving to solve them using its eyes, ears and heart (at least in the first term), indeed gave at least one citizen initial hope.

‘No Public Consultation On Any Policy Issues Anymore’

But as the Central Vista proposal was ushered in by the Ministry Of Housing and Urban Affairs, it had already begun to seem that those personal hopes were unfounded. The proposal was already remarkable in its departure from every norm of democratic precedent, apt development or respect for the environment, heritage or even due processes – not the least missing process being that of sincere public consultation.

And lately, the ramrodding through of ‘approvals’ of various expert bodies set up to guard the national weal, while the citizenry was ‘locked down’, have added to the disappointment.

All this and more is already available to the public for its own understanding, in the form of hundreds of articles and opinion pieces so far published in national media on this topic alone. Yet, one understands that this move to change this relatively small core of national space, representative of India’s past, may seem a small or limited issue to many – damn a heritage building or two in over-privileged yet choked and polluted Delhi, or some much-needed breathable air for its hapless denizen.

Unfortunately for us all, our ‘New India’ seems to want much, much more... to ruin every environment that we in India own and inhabit.

Lost in the surfeit of information and worries are drastic modifications and dilutions proposed to two other vital policies.

In February 2020 came a proposal of drastic modifications to the already deeply flawed National Transit Oriented Development policy. That magic silver bullet of some bureaucratic mind’s devising was going to wave the wand of enabling further dense construction around metro stations, to ‘cure’ every ill of India’s already dense, choked cities – from social inequity to women’s safety, from urban traffic to commuting distances. This, while “unlocking the latent economic potential and land values in the city... to capitalise on the large-scale investments being made into public transit infrastructure” – to quote the motives embedded in the original policy itself in the Delhi Master Plan 2021.

Problem With the ‘One Size Fits All’ Solution

The ‘One Size Fits All’ solution, that mixes up policy with detailed over-regulation, already seemed to disregard the individual complexities of each city – their mostly haphazard current form, and the unique problems inherent in each that first need to be resolved – as also nowhere cogently speaking of including the actual environmental features or even urban heritage of the context of these proposed ‘developments’ as part of the informing mores.

And then in February came proposals to remove even the few equitable instincts – of enabling largely smaller residential units for those otherwise pushed out of the central city or into slum housing, to nullify the factors that may have improved urban realities – like giving up nearly half the developed space to publicly accessible open spaces or roads, to delete the protection accorded to heritage zones within cities, and breathtakingly, remove even the ability of the citizen to be consulted or record her objection – leaving the field clear for greed and venality.

While being applied first in the capital, this policy is set to affect the future growth of each of India’s cities that has a modern transit system (Metro/ BRTS/ local rail commuter systems) – in a nutshell, nearly every city – now allowing all future development to be seen purely through the lens of money. A blatant attempt to facilitate the monetising of city land held by the government in public trust mostly – land available within each city to otherwise be best utilised for logical, equitable, specific need-fulfilling improvement imperatives, to instead be monetised by the builder/ developer lobby with their ‘accomplices’ within the political system and bureaucracy.

So there goes our urban environment

Tragically, soon after, came the exodus of the migrant workers – without slippers and in the summer heat – thrust out of ‘our’ inhospitable cities.

The second is the Environmental Impact Assessment Rules of the Ministry of Environment: Being the only mechanism that stands between the preservation of the environment and it being ravaged by purely commercial interests for their short term gains – whatever be the loss to the local inhabitants, the environmental balance or even the country at large.

The Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Policy 2020 Seems to Favour Industries

In March, on the very first day of the unexpected COVID-19 lockdown, came the Draft EIA Policy 2020 that now puts our mountains, our forests, our rivers and seashores at risk – all the things we have only recently learnt to value post COVID-19. That proposes to legitimise actions currently listed as violations through post-facto approvals, dilutes rules by expanding the list of projects exempted from public consultation and abandons a robust post environment clearance monitoring system.

Besides giving a lot of discretionary powers to government authorities, the Draft EIA 2020 is heavily loaded in favour of industries – allowing polluting industries to pollute more, and causing immense harm to nature.

Under the new draft EIA, industries set to benefit from no public consultation are chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides, petroleum product plants and many more. If there is local resistance to these polluting industries, their voices again will not matter.

Now we might as well give up on our natural environment.

A few weeks later, 11 precious lives were lost and hundreds more injured due to a gas leak in a chemical plant in Vizag.

Subversion of Protective Institutions

It seems that we as a nation do not understand how such policy dilutions will critically and irreversibly affect the future of India’s environment – both the urban/built and natural – leaving successive generations of the country grievously disadvantaged. And when both draft policies consider deleting or minimising the mechanism of public consultation, the citizen is left totally powerless. Especially when the subversions of protective institutions is also visible – when you consider that the Ministry of Environment’s Expert Appraisal Committee has subjugated itself into nine virtual meetings during the COVID lockdown where several industrial, mining and infrastructure projects have been cleared – obviously with no on site scrutiny.

If we thought we could hope that a new government of those hitherto at the fringes of the then ‘empowered’ society would strengthen public institutions once in ‘power’ (as we Indians like to call it) – having themselves seen, during the Navnirman or Sampoorna Kranti movements, and later the Emergency, how it feels to have subverted institutions to those who wish to speak out logically to justly oppose – and to protect against any such misappropriations in the future, it is obvious now that these wishes are doomed to disappointment.

(Narayan Moorthy is a Delhi-based architect. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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