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National Environment Policy 2006: Economics over environment

By Divya Badami and Kanchi Kohli

The final version of the National Environment Policy 2006 continues to put the interests of the economy before those of the environment. What then has the process of 'public participation', in the course of which grassroots organisations pointed out the contradictions and weaknesses of the policy, achieved?

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has made available on its website the final version of what it envisages as the country's environment policy. This document, like the draft version of 2004, displays an ironical disconnect between its stated objectives and its primary concern -- the environment. The objectives of inter- and intra-generational equity and livelihood security for the poor and conservation of critical environmental resources cannot co-exist with principles that are highly homocentric and seek "economic efficiency". The National Environment Policy (NEP) 2006 has strangely made itself more meaningful to the industrial sector, attempting to protect it instead of the environment. There remain, despite repeated inputs, clear areas of concern in both content and the process with which it has been formulated.

In its opening lines the NEP acknowledges the contribution of a countless number of people and states that the document has been finalised after widespread consultation with a range of stakeholders. In a democratic set-up, this would have been the way the NEP should have been developed. A process where local communities whose livelihoods depend on the environment and who bear the brunt of indiscriminate 'development' projects, political representatives, civil society organisations that understand the importance of ecological processes should have been in the forefront of presenting the content of the NEP. But did this happen? And whose perspective is it that seems to be emerging in the content?

The NEP was first issued in August 2004 and opened for public comment till December 2004. A range of comments were sent to the MoEF, and various methods, including a meeting convened by the National Advisory Council, were used to raise critical concerns with the content and bent of the draft NEP. In the public sphere there was silence, till one day in July 2005 a few individuals stumbled upon a revised draft that had 'Secret' marked on every page.

Why does India's NEP drafting need to be a secret? Is it not a mockery of the practices of 'good governance', especially transparency, accountability and participation, which the NEP commits itself to? The government's own ideals of genuine political decentralisation through "people's participation" and its commitment to "provide a government that is... accountable at all times" and "that is responsible at all times", as stated in the Common Minimum Programme, have been woefully - rather, wilfully -- forgotten.

Issues raised by civil society from the very first time the draft NEP was published continue to be sites of contention simply because though "public participation", mainly by way of written responses, is encouraged it is not necessarily appreciated or incorporated. Thus, the NEP 2004 and the NEP 2006 are not substantially different.

In an open letter to the MoEF in October 2004, and a separate letter to the National Advisory Council, over 90 civil society and grassroots organisations came together to highlight weaknesses and contradictions in the NEP. These were re-stated in a letter to the Prime Minister of India in August 2005, soon after the 'secret' revised version was discovered. The unfortunate reality of July 2006 is that the criticisms of previous versions of the policy continue to be largely applicable to the NEP 2006 as well.

The following points are a result of a comparison between the 2004 and 2006 versions of the NEP, and re-instate a few critical bones of contention:

  • According to the NEP, the regulatory mechanisms that are to be put in place to safeguard the environment are to be premised upon the Govindarajan Committee Report on Reforming Investment Approval and Implementation Procedures (November 2002). Thus, ignoring delays caused by widespread non-compliance with mandatory requirements under the Environment Protection Act or Forest Conservation Act, the NEP condones the view that delays in environmental clearances are an impediment to the 'development' process by endorsing the Govindarajan Committee Report. It is no small wonder then that the sections that deal with Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), and subsequent legislations based on the NEP, do not effectively protect the environment.
  • A deceptively progressive addition to the NEP 2006 is to do with the "empowerment of panchayats and Urban Local Bodies (ULB) particularly in terms of functions, functionaries, funds and corresponding capacities". But between the secret draft and the passing of the NEP 2006, provisions to "give greater legal standing" to local communities, ULBs and panchayati raj institutions to undertake monitoring and compliance of environmental management plans have been reduced to provisions for building capacity to be able to make such assessments. This indicates the extent of commitment being expressed towards goals of empowerment through decentralisation.
  • In another instance of lip-service, while the NEP does acknowledge the organic links between forest-dependant communities and forests in terms of their livelihood requirements, there is still no attempt to undo the alienation that many such communities face in accessing forests, as development plans do not integrate them. This definitely does not comply with the CMP promise that the "eviction of tribal communities and other forest-dwelling communities from forest areas will be discontinued".
  • The NEP 2006 also clearly values the traditional knowledge of tribals, but only to exploit it. It focuses more on "unlocking the value of genetic diversity through reduction in search cost," rather than the intrinsic value of such knowledge and its value to the tribals themselves. The NEP 2006 also decisively welcomes the patent regime, where the provision to formulate and adopt an internationally recognised system of legally enforceable sui-generis intellectual property rights for the country's genetic resources and ethno-biology knowledge that existed in the draft version has been replaced by a recommendation to tune the Biodiversity Conservation Act to the Patents Act, 1970. The sole objective of such a move is to facilitate access to and exploitation of biological resources through legislation mandated for biodiversity conservation.
  • With regard to clean technologies, the NEP 2006 distinguishes between end-of-the-pipeline solutions and clean technologies, taking measures to increase market access to patent-protected technologies. Yet the enduring weakness of the NEP from a technical and scientific point of view remains, and this results in unacceptable compromises on environmental standards.
  • Reviewing the NEP is another important component of the policy. This has predictably been left to the Cabinet or a nominated committee of the Cabinet and has no provisions for public participation.

The overall thrust of the NEP remains the same. It recognises the "dichotomous relationship" between economic growth and environmental degradation, but justifies economics as a means to resolve the two as it can allocate resources for environmental investments. It clearly states that multilateral regimes and programmes responding to global environmental issues will not be at the cost of development opportunities in developing countries.

ClichAcd as it may sound, the current development paradigm is being blindly promoted without a critical questioning of who the beneficiaries of such development are, and who and what stands to lose from this chosen developmental path.

The NEP seems to align itself with sustainable development more out of an obligation to keep pace with the rest of the world without displaying the will to actually understand what it is all about. In subscribing to sustainable development by wanting to achieve a "balance and harmony between the economic, social and environmental needs of the country," the NEP 2006 believes that it is making a reasonable compromise, when it is, in reality, a sacrifice of long-term interests to short-term goals.

The Government of India and the Ministry of Environment and Forests have been declared custodian and trustee of the environment. Yet, the large-scale promotion of public-private partnerships as a means to encourage stakeholder involvement is a misleading means of achieving local self-governance, as the emphasis is more on the 'private' aspect of the partnership. While such an arrangement is completely in consonance with the Govindarajan Committee Report recommendation of reducing delays, the role that the MoEF plays as guardian is progressively eroded and the extent to which it can be depended upon to be a trustworthy custodian and trustee of the environment comes into question.

The policy needs to see a paradigm shift where the economy is placed within the context of the environment, rather than the other way around, if environmental issues are to be genuinely addressed and if the policy is to be in the business of protecting the environment rather than the corporate sector.

(Divya Badami and Kanchi Kohli are with the environment action group Kalpavriksh)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2006