Will the national government be known for its speedy clearances and neglected environmental priorities?

  • Before the 2014 elections, Bharatiya Janata Party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to speed up green clearance process for industry, and during the last five years, it has done precisely that.
  • BJP in its manifesto had promised a series of measures to address critical environmental problems like tackling air pollution, cleaning of rivers, mainly Ganga, and waste management. Mongabay-India looked at the central government’s policies in the last five years to analyse its performance in the sector.
  • Though the government launched ambitious programmes to clean Ganga and address waste management they have failed to make an impact. The ambitious solar power programme has also not performed on the solar rooftop front.
  • The proposals of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to involve the private sector in India’s forestry programmes also drew criticism from the forest rights activists who believe it will adversely impact the rights of forest dwellers.

Ahead of the 2014 parliamentary elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) manifesto had promised to “frame the environmental laws in a manner” that will lead to “speedy clearance of proposals without delay” and staying true to the words the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has done just that but at a significant cost to environment and wildlife.

Mongabay-India looked into the major policy decisions related to the environment that the NDA government implemented in last five years and probed if the environment protection took a back seat vis-à-vis development.

Experts said that besides focusing on ease of business and speedy clearances to proposals of industries, Prime Minister Narendra Modi led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government introduced and finalised a series of changes which weakened the norms governing country’s forests and coasts, delayed implementation of tighter emission standards for coal power plants, failed to deliver on the promise of cleaning River Ganga and that fight against air pollution has been ineffective.  

Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta said that not even a single proactive action has been taken by the NDA government to protect the environment and strengthen conservation in the country. “In fact, they are working hard to dismantle the framework of the environmental laws and making ease of living difficult in India,” Dutta told Mongabay-India.

Speedy green clearances became a reality

In the manifesto released before the 2014 elections, BJP had promised that it would “frame the environmental laws in a manner that provides no scope for confusion” so that there can be speedy clearances for proposals along with a time-bound and transparent decision-making on environment clearances. PM Modi had made a similar promise in election rallies before the NDA assumed power in May 2014.

In the last five years, it launched an online system for application of green clearances for developmental projects, came out with standard guidelines for conducting environmental impact studies of projects and standard conditions for environment clearances to speed up the environment clearance processes. As a result of these decisions, the average processing time for green clearances has already come down from 580 days to 180 days now, and the government aims to bring it under 100 days.  

The latest one in the long list is the Coastal Regulation Zone notification 2018, notified in January 2019, which threatens to open a substantial chunk of the coast to infrastructural activity, threatening environment and interest of fishermen.

The NDA government has ensured faster green clearances for industrial projects. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

As one carefully goes through BJP’s 2014 manifesto, the party made a series of promises to clean River Ganga which is considered sacred by millions of Indians. It had committed to ensure the “cleanliness, purity and uninterrupted flow of the Ganga on priority” and launch a massive ‘clean rivers programme’ across the country. PM Modi too had famously claimed Ganga as his mother before the elections.

But, Ganga continues to remain polluted with an ineffective Clean Ganga Programme for which Rs 200 billion (Rs 20,000 crore) budget was announced.

Himanshu Thakkar, who is the coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a network of organisations and individuals working on issues related to the water sector, specifically associated with large dams, highlighted that government not just failed to clean Ganga but diluted wetlands laws as well.

“They have compromised everything. Environment governance is being compromised in the name of doing ease of business for large corporates. The state of the rivers has worsened. Take the condition of the River Ganga for example, which was supposed to be this government’s great priority. A report submitted in the National Green Tribunal shows the river is nowhere near to being clean,” Thakkar told Mongabay-India.

“Government is pushing the Chardham highway which is worsening the condition of the river (Ganga) in ecologically sensitive Uttarakhand. The government is also pushing the national waterways project through the back door. Their slogan was ‘nirmal and aviral Ganga’ but they don’t even have a roadmap to ensure ecological flow in Ganga. They are even pushing river interlinking projects by forcing expert committees to give clearance to them. Even the rules for the management of wetlands were watered down,” added Thakkar.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammad Salim, who is also a member of the Parliament, told Mongabay-India, “The Modi government has done no work on the environment sector. The (environmental) rules were diluted for mines and forest clearance. Even the Sagarmala programme ignores coastal ecology and the new CRZ rules that have been brought by the government without consulting the fishermen.”

Solar rooftop remains a non-starter

BJP had also pledged to give a major thrust to renewable energy and strengthen the National Solar Mission. Thus to give credit where it is due, the NDA government increased India’s solar power target from 20 GW to 100 GW by 2022. It outlined an ambitious 175 renewable power goal by 2022 which included 100 GW of solar power. It successfully brought down the prices of solar and wind energy per unit to record levels but failed to kickstart the solar rooftop sector. Of the target of 100 GW of solar power, 40 GW is scheduled to come from the solar rooftop sector.  

Ritwick Dutta said India’s renewable energy programme did not stop the government from pursuing the coal-focused policies.  

“There is no doubt that the 175 GW renewable programme is important but that is guided by market forces and what is important is that it has not stopped the government from allocating more coal mines across the country. In the last two years, coal mines allocation is increasing. Even the coal cess of Rs 580 billion (Rs 58,000 crore) was diverted for the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST),” Dutta stressed.

Nandikesh Sivalingam, a campaigner with Greenpeace India, said we need to give credit to Modi government for the commitments made on climate change at the international level including the ambitious renewable power target of 175 Gigawatt by 2022.

“But the progress on the solar rooftop sector has been slow. As far as NDA’s performance on environmental issues on the domestic front is concerned, they have either been slow in taking action or have worked against protecting the environment. For instance, action on strengthening emission norms for thermal power plants have been delayed by five years,” said Sivalingam.

Air Pollution gets a national plan but it is without teeth

One of the major environmental issues that gained attention during Modi government’s tenure was worsening air pollution across the country. The World Health Organisation in successive reports highlighted that majority of top 10 or top 20 polluted cities of the world are from India. The government finally came out with India’s first National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) in January 2019, but that was without any teeth and any legally binding targets.

Stressing that the NCAP has just come now and if it will lead to cleaner air is something that has to be seen, said Ritwick Dutta.  

“But the single, biggest failure of the government is that the National Board for Wildlife, which is headed by prime minister, has not even met once in last five years. PM did not find time to convene even one meeting. The standing committee of the NBWL has been meeting, but that is only to clear the projects,” said Dutta.

During the last five years, the NDA government was repeatedly pulled up by various courts on the issue of air pollution.

Environmentalists believe fast green clearances are coming at the cost of environment. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

Among other things, BJP in its manifesto had vowed to bring cleaner fuels to bring down the pollution levels particularly in the cities, use the wastelands of the country for social forestry and encourage innovative garbage disposal and waste management practices. The government has already announced that Bharat Stage-6 (BS-6) emission norms compliant fuels, which is much cleaner compared to present quality of fuel, will be available across India from April 2020.

Environment observers feel that the NDA government did take action but it fell short of the goals. For instance, in 2016, the government updated India’s most of the waste management laws addressing issues of solid waste, electronic waste, bio-medical waste and plastic waste. But they have not been of much help and even the national capital is struggling to dispose its solid waste.

Proposal to involve the private sector in India’s forestry draws criticism

Involvement of the private sector in India’s forestry has also been one of the controversial topics during the NDA government’s tenure. For instance, the draft of India’s third National Forest Policy, which was unveiled in March 2018, talked about developing public-private participation models for undertaking afforestation and reforestation activities in degraded forest areas and forest areas available with the forest development corporations. This, however, drew criticism from forest rights activist who said that it would open up the doors for private industry in the sector.

Later in the year, a report by an expert committee formed by India’s environment ministry suggested leasing of wasteland to the corporate sector for re-greening which again drew heavy criticism.

“The proper implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 has always been a contentious issue since its inception – even before the Modi government. But what we have seen in the five years of the Modi government is three different strategies used by them which together have been very damaging. First one is to neglect its implementation, but second is something new, which is to frame entire laws and policies as if the FRA Act does not exist,” said Shankar Gopalakrishnan, who is the secretary of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national platform of forest dwellers groups.

“Third is the open flouting of the rules to favour corporates, such as rampant illegal diversion of the forest land, and guidelines have been issued that restrict rights while handing over forests to private companies for afforestation,” he added.

The parliamentary elections are scheduled this year and issues like pollution free cities, failure to clean Ganga and steps that can harm the interests of tribal people are expected to be intensely debated.

Banner image: Making way for a railway line to an industrial plant in Chhattisgarh through the forest. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

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