A policy of promise

Published : Dec 31, 2004 00:00 IST

The draft National Environment Policy prepared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests is comprehensive and evokes a positive response from a cross-section of stakeholders.

CONSIDERING that environmental issues impinge upon the economy and all sections of society in one way or the other, formulating a national environment policy that would satisfy everyone is no easy task. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is currently engaged in this exercise. It is confident of striking a balance between the conflicting interests of the stakeholders as the draft National Environment Policy (NEP) it released in August has evoked a positive response.

The Ministry has held wide consultations on the draft with State governments as well as various voluntary organisations. It has also encouraged the State governments to hold consultations with stakeholders within their respective States. Initially a three-month period was given to receive their comments, but the deadline has now been extended to December 31.

The draft NEP seeks to provide a comprehensive strategy for environmental conservation, in keeping with the national commitment to ensure a clean environment, as mandated in the Constitution. At present, there are separate policies for different classes of natural resources and various aspects of environmental concern - the National Forest Policy, the National Conservation Strategy and Policy Statement on Environment and Development, the Policy Statement on Abatement of Pollution, the National Water Policy and so on. But the experience in implementing these policies over the years has brought out the need for a comprehensive policy statement to evolve a common approach to management of environment. Moreover, in recent years, the concept of sustainable development has gained ground and this requires harmonisation of the economic, social and environmental needs of the country. It is in this context that the Government has come out with the draft NEP.

WHAT are the key environmental challenges that the policy seeks to overcome? According to the draft NEP, the major causes of environmental degradation are population growth, technology and consumption choices and poverty - which lead to changes in the relationship between people and eco-systems - and activities like intensive agriculture, industrial production that results in the discharge of pollutants and unplanned urbanisation. Other causes include: institutional failures resulting in a lack of clarity on the enforcement of rights of access and use of environmental resources; policies that discourage environmental conservation; market failures owing to shortcomings in the regulatory regimes; and governance constraints.

While listing poverty among the "drivers" of environmental degradation, the draft NEP points out that environmental degradation itself aggravates and perpetuates poverty, particularly in rural and tribal areas, because it affects soil fertility, the quantity and quality of fresh water, forests, the air and fisheries. Any loss of resilience in eco-systems, on which livelihoods are based, can lead to destitution among certain groups even if the overall economic growth is strong. In urban areas, environmental degradation affects the health of the poor. Thus poverty is both the cause and effect of environmental degradation.

Economic growth may result in excessive environmental degradation. But at the same time it may help to enhance the quality of the environment by making available resources for environmental investments, generating societal pressure to improve the environment and bring about institutional and policy changes. Thus economic growth is found to have a dichotomous impact on the environment.

The institutional failures mentioned in the document include insufficiently enforced rights of access to, and use of, environmental resources. Traditionally, local communities have protected village commons such as water sources, grazing grounds, local forests and fisheries from over-exploitation. But over the years the development process, including urbanisation and population growth, has resulted in strengthening individual rights over community rights, leading to market forces pressing for changes that often have adverse environmental implications. If this trend continues, the resources would be degraded and the livelihoods of the community would suffer. The policy failures leading to environmental degradation include explicit and implicit subsidies for the use of natural resources. These subsidies act as incentives for the excessive use of resources.

Yet another set of challenges relates to global environmental concerns - climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion and biodiversity loss, and multilateral regimes with a possible adverse impact on the development process in developing countries.

In this context, the draft NEP lists seven objectives: the conservation of critical environmental resources; intra-generational equity and livelihood security for the poor; inter-generational equity; integration of environmental concerns in economic and social development; improved efficiency in environmental resource use; good environmental governance; and enhancement of resources for environmental conservation. The policy seeks to achieve these objectives through strategic interventions by government at different levels and through partnerships among public agencies, local communities and various economic stakeholders.

THE document has laid down 15 guiding principles to implement the policy. The salient features are as follows: Human beings are at the centre of efforts at sustainable development and that they are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature. The right to development must be fulfilled in such a way as to meet equitably the developmental and environmental needs of the present and future generations. Environmental protection should be an integral part of the development process. The lack of scientific certainty should not be cited as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. In various public actions for environmental conservation, economic efficiency should be realised. To ensure this, the services of environmental resources should be given economic values that are equal to the economic values of other goods and services. This principle implies that the perpetrator of degradation should bear its cost and that the economic costs of realising environmental benefits should be minimised in any event. But a conventional economic cost-benefit calculus would not be applied in the case of entities with incomparable values. The entities in this category include historical monuments such as the Taj Mahal, charismatic species such as the tiger or unique landscapes such as the Valley of Flowers in Uttaranchal. Conservation of such entities would be given priority and societal resources allocated without considering the direct or immediate economic benefit.

The other principles include equity, legal liability with alternative approaches like "fault-based liability" and "strict liability", the public trust doctrine of the State being merely a trustee of all natural resources meant for public use and enjoyment - subject to reasonable restrictions - decentralisation, integration of social and natural sciences in environment-related policy research, inclusion of environmental considerations in sectoral policy making, setting environmental standards, preventive action and environmental offsetting. The last principle implies that threatened or endangered species and natural systems cannot be provided protection owing to exceptional reasons of overriding public interest. Cost-effective measures should be undertaken by the proponents of the activity to restore as nearly as may be feasible the lost environmental services.

THE draft NEP envisages the strategies to achieve these objectives. These include reforms in the present regulatory regimes comprising the legislative framework, and a set of institutions to achieve synergy among relevant statutes and regulations, ensure a holistic approach to the management of the environment and natural resources and identify emerging areas for fresh legislation. Process-related reforms are also envisaged to reduce delays in decision-making at all levels, promote decentralisation, ensure greater transparency and accountability and ensure a judicious mix of civil and criminal processes in the legal regime for enforcement. The substantive reforms proposed in the document cover a wide gamut of activities.

It is proposed to institutionalise regional and cumulative environment impact assessments, make environmental clearance mandatory for all projects involving large-scale diversion of prime agricultural land, encourage the clustering of development activities to facilitate the creation of an environment-management infrastructure, and prohibit diversion of dense natural forests to non-forest use except in site-specific cases of vital national interest. The Coastal Regulation Zone notifications would be reviewed to make the regulation more holistic and ensure that the integrated coastal zone management plans are comprehensive and prepared on a scientific basis. The decentralisation of clearance of specific projects is also proposed to enable State environmental authorities to decide.

A number of actions have been proposed to ensure that the development of biotechnology does not lead to unforeseen adverse impacts. The regulatory processes for living modified organisms (LMOs) and the National Bio-Safety Guidelines would be reviewed for this purpose. Conservation of bio-diversity and human health would be ensured while dealing with LMOs in trans-boundary movement in a manner consistent with the Multilateral Bio-Safety Protocol. Environmentally sensitive zones that have entities of incomparable value and require special conservation efforts would be identified and given legal status. Area development plans would be formulated and local institutions created to manage such areas. In order to strengthen monitoring and enforcement, it is proposed to give greater legal standing to local community-based organisations and develop feasible models of public-private partnerships so that the resources of the private sector are used to set up and operate the infrastructure to monitor compliance.

The use of economic principles in environmental decision-making is also envisaged. The idea is to reverse the present tendency to treat natural resources as "free goods" while passing on the costs of degradation to other sections of society and future generations. In this connection, it is proposed to strengthen the initiatives taken by the Central Statistical Organisation for natural resources accounting and for including it in the system of national income accounts. This is expected to help assess whether, in the course of economic growth, the nation is depleting, or enhancing its natural resource base of production. The use of standardised environmental accounting practices would be promoted to encourage greater environmental responsibility in investment decision-making, management practices and public security. Integration of environmental values into a cost-benefit analysis would be facilitated to ensure a more efficient allocation of resources while making public investment and policy decisions.

THE document outlines specific initiatives to address the proximate and deeper causes of degradation of different natural resources. To check land degradation, it proposes to encourage the adoption of science-based and traditional land use practices, promote the reclamation of wasteland and degraded forest land through multi-stakeholder partnerships, and implement thematic action plans to arrest and reverse the process of desertification. It is proposed to give legal recognition to the traditional rights of the tribal population dwelling in forests, as this would provide them long-term incentives to conserve forests. An innovative strategy would be formulated to increase forest and tree cover from the present level of 23 per cent of the total land area to 33 per cent in 2012 through the afforestation of degraded forest land and wastelands and the increase of tree cover on private or revenue land. The strategy aims to rationalise the restrictions on cultivation of forest species outside the notified forests so that farmers can undertake social and farm forestry. It also envisages universalisation of the Joint Forestry Management system. Public investments would be directed to enhance the density of natural forests and conserve mangroves. In addition, an appropriate methodology would be formulated to restore the environmental values of forests, which are unavoidably diverted to other use.

In respect of wildlife conservation, the document envisages expansion of the Protected Area network to give a fair representation to all bio-geographical zones and the harmonisation of economic and physical features with the needs of socio-economic development. Multi-stakeholder partnerships would be promoted to improve wildlife habitats and derive both environmental and eco-tourism benefits. Site-specific eco-development programmes would be developed in the fringes of Protected Areas to help restore the sources of livelihoods of local communities and their access to forest produce.

To check the loss of biodiversity owing to environmental degradation, it is proposed to strengthen the protection of "biodiversity hotspots", while providing local communities with alternative sources of livelihood and access to resources. Explicit attention would be paid to the potential impact of development projects on biodiversity and natural heritage. Ancient sacred groves and biodiversity hotspots would be treated as entities that possess "incomparable values". Among other measures planned are the enhancement of ex-situ conservation of genetic resources in designated gene banks, adoption of an internationally recognised system of legally enforceable sui generis system of intellectual property rights for ethno-biology knowledge and setting up of an online database of the inventory of such ethno-biology knowledge.

Freshwater resources, comprising river systems, groundwater and wetlands are among the more important natural resources. A series of measures for efficient use of water resources have been proposed in the draft NEP to protect them from depletion and pollution. The action plan envisages the mitigation of the impact of multi-purpose river valley projects on river flora and fauna, the compulsory installation of water saving closets and taps, enhancement of groundwater recharge, and creation of legally enforceable regulatory mechanisms for identified wetlands. The document also lists action plans for preserving mountain ecosystems and coastal resources and abating water, air, soil and noise pollution, besides the conservation of heritage sites.

ON the face of it, the policy prescriptions in the draft would appear unexceptionable. But environmental activists and close observers of the environment have critically examined it and pinpointed what they consider to be flaws. People's Democracy, the official organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has described it as "basically skewed" and that the poor and the underprivileged have been ignored. But official sources point out that the objective of the policy is to ensure environmental protection, which directly contributes to poverty alleviation.

"We have had consultations with State governments, including the States where Left parties are in power, and these States in particular have given overwhelming support to the draft", says Dr. Pradipto Ghosh, Secretary to the MoEF. According to him, the West Bengal government had extensive consultations within the State before conveying its views on the draft policy. "The Ministry posed to the West Bengal government the specific question whether it considers the policy anti-poor and the reply was that it was not anti-poor but is supportive of poverty alleviation", says Dr. Ghosh.

Some critics have found a pronounced slant towards economic parameters in the draft. Official sources say that one of the main reasons for environmental degradation is that values have not been placed on natural resources and environmental resources are treated as free goods. To put an end to this notion, an economic valuation has to be made and people should be made to realise that those who want to use such resources have to pay for them. This would provide the people with appropriate incentives to modify their behaviour to conserve environmental resources. The "pollutor pays" principle comes from the notion of economic efficiency, which in turn implies that one should give proper valuation to all entities. The term "economic efficiency" has nothing to do with corporate profit, but refers to the maximisation of welfare across all members of society. It is made clear in the draft that there are limits to the application of this principle of economic efficiency, and that it would not be applied to entities with incomparable values, which would be conserved without cost considerations.

Yet another point of criticism is that the draft does not cater to the Indian ethos and follows the dictates of the World Bank. But the MoEF has categorically denied this. It has also pointed out that the draft takes into account the issues contained in the Common Minimum Programme of the present government.

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