Prioritizing the Environment in India

According to a World Bank survey released in March 2014, environmental degradation costs India 5.7 percent of its annual GDP. Out of the 178 countries surveyed, India ranked an abysmal 155 on environment and air pollution indicators. India is the third largest carbon emitter after USA and China and contributes 5 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead of an overarching environmental strategy to meet such challenges, India currently has a number of disparate policies. According to an official budget release, the weakness of the existing system lies in the enforcement capabilities of environmental institutions both at the centre and the state. “There is no effective coordination amongst various Ministries/Institutions regarding integration of environmental concerns at the inception/planning stage of the project. Current policies are also fragmented across several Government agencies with differing policy mandates.”

As a result, several big-ticket development projects have been slowed by contradicting rules and notifications issued by different ministries and institutions, each one making the clearance process cumbersome and environmental clearances hard to obtain. According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, lack of environmental clearance was a responsible for stalling over a third of 157 projects during the period between January and March 2014. Compliance requirements and statutory clearances have blocked the development of several major infrastructure projects in the country, including dams, highways and power plants.

Lack of political leadership, combined with an over-cautious bureaucracy, has exacerbated the issue. Though implementing and addressing environmental issues is typically the purview of the legislative and executive branches, in India the Supreme Court has been directly engaged in interpreting and changing environmental law. This involvement can be tied to the failure of government agencies and state institutions to discharge their constitutional and statutory responsibilities.

Recently, a Supreme Court order shut down iron ore mines in Odisha. Prices of iron ore have shot up and steel plants are staring at revenue losses as they may now have to resort to imports. Odisha caters to nearly 60 percent of the domestic steel industry’s iron ore demand and the ban will mean that roughly 20 million tons of steel production across India will be impacted. The reform in question, the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Bill 2011 that would have replaced the five decade old legislation and bring greater clarity to mining operations in India, was not passed by the former Congress-led UPA government during the previous parliamentary session and has now lapsed. Passage of the bill may have prevented the shutting down of the mines in Odisha.

The new government’s outlook

These policy challenges have led to frustration that made environmental policy a campaign plank for all parties in the recent elections. An interactive graphic by the India Environmental Portal shows the environmental issues across India that garnered attention in the recent elections. The new government has been reactive to concerns, moving quickly to assure stakeholders that it is addressing this policy deficit.

BJP leader Prakash Javadekar has formally taken charge of the new Ministry of Environment as Minister of State (Independent Charge). Among the first of many reforms, the ministry plans to expedite the creation of a national environmental regulator to streamline regulatory procedures. In the past, the Ministry of Environment has largely been viewed as a licensing authority. Under the new NDA government, this may change. Javadekar said that he would give fast clearances to projects while “preserving the environment” and that it is not going to be “environment versus growth”. By the end of May, the government announced that it had cleared 28 projects worth $13 billion.

Javadekar also met with Piyush Goyal, the Minister of Power, Coal and Renewable Energy, and has short-listed 20 projects that can be granted clearance as early as June. The government will accord top priority to granting environment clearances to projects in the defense and public sector. Having a Prime Minister who is energy-literate also augers well for the power sector. Gujarat is the only power-surplus state in the country. If Narendra Modi’s tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat is anything to go by, it can be inferred that the Modi-led government will prioritize increasing power generation. When it comes to energy security, the BJP manifesto promises to “maximize the potential of oil, gas, hydel power, ocean, wind, coal, and nuclear.” Meeting these promises will require that meaningful attention is given to resource development projects.

Shortly after declaration of the election results, the NDA government formed the long-delayed State-level Expert Appraisal Authority (SEAA) and its sub-committee, the State-level Environment Impact Assessment Committee (SEIAC) under the Environment Protection Act. The revamp of the environment impact assessment (EIA) processes are also under discussion. Streamlining these processes has the potential to ease inter-state and center-state conflicts and increase transparency. The ministry also launched a new online system for submission of applications for clearances. The system will allow applicants as well as authorities to keep an eye on the entire process while adhering to the timeline of various clearances or rejections.

These initial interventions by the Modi government, in its first three weeks, show that it is willing to move quickly to streamline project clearances that have been stalled for the last ten years and to find a balance between development and environmental protection. The ministry is slated to become more powerful and central in the NDA regime and coordination between industry, environmental policy and sustainability goals will help India tremendously as it moves towards its projected growth trajectory.