Modi government’s war on environment

India is a unique repository of rich wildlife and vegetation. Hence, the impetus to conserve this biodiversity lies on every policy framed by our lawmakers. Conservation of wildlife, environment, forests, and tribal rights have taken a major account in framing policies under every Congress government, starting with the foundation stone laid in the Indian Constitution; the Article 48A under Directive Principles of State Policies promotes “protection and improvement of environment and safeguarding of forests and wildlife”.

However, within 100 days of assuming power, the BJP-led government of India waged a full-scale war on environment and wildlife. Modi government’s very first move was to dilute the 2006 Forest Rights Act that made it mandatory to get the consent of tribals before using their traditional forestlands for any developmental activities. The government then decided to re-categorise the industries based on pollution load, which was implemented later in 2016. This change in classification has now led to allowing mid-sized polluting industries to operate within 5km of national parks and sanctuaries. The earlier rule made National Board for Wildlife clearance mandatory for projects in eco-sensitive boards.

The National Board for Wildlife, an apex body to review all wildlife-related matters and approve projects in and around sanctuaries and national parks, was constituted under Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 introduced by the Indian National Congress-led government. Modi government reconstituted the standing committee. It replaced 10 independent experts of the committee to 2. It also replaced non-government expert institutions with Gujarat Ecological Education and Research Foundation eroding the autonomy of the Board. This move came under the scrutiny of Supreme Court which helped in stopping few environmentally disastrous decisions the new Board had quickly pushed through.

Another such body, National Green Tribunal, the only dedicated environment court in the country, set up by the Congress government by passing National Green Tribunal Act of 2010, today witnesses its scope being diluted. The underlined provision of NGT that allows only a former judge of Supreme Court or Chief Justice of High Court to be the Chairperson of NGT in the view of the fact that it welcomes only the highest form of expertise has been now reduced to “any person holding judicial office”. The new rules also reduced the term of office of the Chairperson from 5 years to 3 years, again hampering the independence of the Tribunal.

The Coal Mines, for expansion, undergo a public hearing, that will be completed within 30 days, to provide documents about the plan of expansion. Previously, coal mines that produced less than 8 million tonnes of coal per annum were exempted from this public hearing. But this bar has been raised to 16 million tonnes per annum.

Recently, the Supreme Court of India expressed surprise on Central government’s move to reduce the radius of Eco-Sensitive Zones from previous 10 km to a shocking 100 meters! Modi government is blatantly changing laws and legalising crimes. The government has proposed amendments to Environment Protection Act that terms violators as mere “management errors”.

Modi government’s ‘Pay and Pollute’ governance indicates a systemic erosion of environmental laws by changing them and legalising criminal offences against the environment. India cannot afford to retract these laws as the threats on the environment is only increasing.