Shri R P Gupta
Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MEFCC)
Government of India
Dear Shri Gupta,
The National Environment Policy, 2006 (NEP) emphasises the need to conserve the rich biodiversity heritage of the country in the following statements.
“Pay explicit attention to the potential impacts of development projects on biodiversity resources and natural heritage. In appraisal of such projects by cost-benefit analysis, assign values to biodiversity resources at or near the upper end of the range of uncertainty. In particular, ancient sacred groves and ‘biodiversity hotspots’ should be treated as possessing ‘Incomparable Values’.
Review and tighten the provisions of relevant legislation to enhance their deterrence. Further, strengthen institutional measures and capacities of enforcement authorities, with respect to intelligence collection, investigation, and prosecution, to deal with wildlife crime”
India has also ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992 w.e.f 19-5-194 and is a party to the subsequent UN protocols on conservation of biodiversity.
The Centre has enacted several environmental laws, including the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 which became effective from 2003. The Act has created the necessary institutional mechanisms at the Centre and in the States to conserve biodiversity.
Despite these initiatives, there has been a gradual erosion of biodiversity on several fronts in different parts of the country.
For example, according to an assessment made by CPCB in 2018, while there has been progressive degradation in the quality of the river waters, during 2016-18 alone, the number of critically polluted river stretches had increased steeply from 302 to 351. This has posed a serious threat to the ecology and the biodiversity of the rivers in India.
As far as wetlands are concerned, 1/3rd of them have got drained out as a result of urbanisation and industrial projects and 70% of the remaining have become polluted.
The country’s mangroves along the coast are also facing destruction. 40% of them have disappeared during the last few decades. Increasing number of coast-based projects has accentuated this crisis further.
CAG’s Report No 21/2013 on compensatory afforestation has shown how the concept of raising alternate forests is yet to fully take off in almost all the States. As a result, the forest stretches diverted for projects are not getting compensated as directed by the apex court in the Gdavarman case. The Coal Ministry has recently decided to auction 41 coal blocks in several no-go areas of dense forest growth, which will further cause a serious loss to the overall biodiversity of the country.
The reasons for this are evident. There are serious gaps in the laws that govern environmental impact of development projects. The penalties provided in the different laws for the violators of the laws are not sufficiently deterrent, not fully compliant with the “polluter pays” principle. The regulatory mechanisms in place are not fully empowered to enforce the laws effectively.
In particular, the environment impact assessment (EIA) process put in place in pursuance of the Environment Protection Act has remained inadequate and there is no effective mechanism today to monitor compliance with the conditions precedent to the statutory Environment Clearance orders in respect of individual projects. The 2006 EIA Notification aimed more at facilitating the smooth environmental clearance procedures in favour of projects than safeguarding the environment in consultation with the main stakeholder, namely, the affected families. The more recent 2020 EIA notification has taken the EIA procedure further in favour of ease of setting up projects, rather than plugging the existing loopholes for conserving the environment and for reversing the declining trend in biodiversity. This is a matter of serious concern.
Many countries have realised the economic value that lies in conserving biodiversity and are adopting improved norms in that respect. By way of an example, I have enclosed here a copy of the Biodiversity Impact Assessment (BIA) guidelines issued by a highly urbanised country like Singapore.
The BIA is an important component of the EIA process and it provides a scientific basis for assessing the impact of the project on biodiversity. The BIA guidelines are elaborately spelt out so that those affected by the project may perceive the risks and respond.
These guidelines provide for comprehensive baseline studies through vegetation mapping, mapping of species’ habitats and mapping of hydrology in and around the site of a project.
An important feature of the Singapore BIA guidelines is that the “precautionary principle” and the worst case scenarios should always be applied whenever there is any doubt in the evaluation of impacts and the development of mitigation measures.
Perhaps, MEFCC should consider how countries like Singapore are addressing the urgent concerns about the environment and biodiversity and revisit its own EIA approach, rather than diluting the norms to accommodate “ease of doing business”. MEFCC should remain fully committed to the statutory obligation cast upon it in Article 48A of the Constitution and discharge it as its primary responsibility in addressing the environmental impacts of projects.
I hope that there will be rethinking within MEFCC as far as the EIA process is concerned.
E A S Sarma
Former Secretary to GOI