Centre's decentralisation of power is a facade

Centre's decentralisation of power is a facade

Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar, is seen very often in the media and public functions speaking on diverse issues. According to his own admission made in 2014 to the press, he has only 10% of the work of his predecessors. This cannot surely be attributed to improved environmental conditions in the country. With India figuring as the country with the most environmental conflicts, where more than 35,000 hectares of forest land are legally diverted each year and housing 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, the job of the minister of environment is both challenging and difficult. 

According to a Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) document released in 2015, “Towards Transparency and Good Governance,” the devolution of powers has resulted in nearly 92% of the approvals being  granted by the state governments.

Ever since the present NDA government came to power, the MoEF has taken a series of steps towards what it claims is “decentralisation” of powers from the Centre to the state and local levels. This is part of the Central government’s overall focus on good governance. However, in the process of so called decentralisation, the crucial question that arises is, whether the Central government is abdicating its constitutional responsibility with respect to the environment.

The second question which arises is, whether there is “real” decentralisation or merely transfer of decision making power from one bureaucrat to another at different levels? The 42nd Amendment of the Constitution has specifically mandated a role, responsibility and duty of the Central government in the protection of environment. One of the important developments is the claim of “decentralisation” of powers by the setting up of District Environment Impact Assessment Authority for appraisal of mining proposals of 5 hectares and below. At present, appraisal of mining projects is done at the state level with the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority.

The draft Wetland Rules, 2016, proposes to do away with the Central Wetland Regulatory Authority at the Central government level and replace it with a State Wetland Regulatory Authority. Simplified proposals for grant of forest clearance has meant that linear projects (canals, pipelines, transmission lines etc) can be granted approval by Regional Empowered Committees at the state level irrespective of the forest land involved.

Range of projects of “strategic concerns” no longer need to undergo any detailed scrutiny and are approved as part of what is termed by the ministry as “policy-based predictable regime.”

On the face of it does seem that the action of the MoEF is quite benign and in furtherance with the idea of “good governance.” The reality is however quite different. Contrary to the impression being created about decentralisation, every effort has been made to “silence” the voice of local people and local institutions and bureaucratise the decision making process.

No real power
If one looks beyond the veil of “decentralisation,” the following conclusion can be drawn: no real power has been devolved to the local bodies and communities who are directly affected by the faulty environmental decision making. The Regional Empowered Committees mandated to approve diversion of forest is headed by the Additional Principle Chief Conservator of Forest and has forest officers as members. The new District Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority for mining projects is headed by the district collector/ district magistrate. Similarly, the district level Expert Appraisal Committee will be headed by the executive engineer, irrigation department.

The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006, requires that decisions be made by experts on the subject based on public consultation of a range of projects. It is not known how the executive engineer of the irrigation department or the district magistrate is competent to appraise EIA documents and evaluate the quality of cumulative impact assessments.

Earlier, the Supreme Court had set aside appointment of civil engineers and mining experts in Forest Advisory Committee under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, on the ground that they are not domain experts. As per the Draft Wetland Rules, the State Wetland Authority will be headed by the chief minister. The chief minister also heads the State Board for Wildlife. It rarely ever meets and when it meets, it is only for approval of roads, dams and power lines in protected areas. 

In the last one year, public hearings or  consultations have been done away with for a range of programmes like projects located in industrial estates. On March 5, the minister announced a list of 36 industries which will no longer require environmental clearance or approval under the Air Act and Water Act. The direct implication is that there will be no public scrutiny of these projects. There will be no requirement of monitoring and compliance since they will be outside the purview of environmental law.

If the government is keen to ensure decentralisation, it should strengthen the public hearing process, include projects and activities which are exempt from the process of public consultation. It should implement in letter and spirit the powers of gram sabhas under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, and empower local communities to monitor compliances. This is real decentralisation.

What is happening can by no stretch of imagination be termed as “decentralisation,” it is simply abdication of the constitutional responsibility and duty towards the environment and people by the Central government. It is time people raise their voice against this farce of decentralisation.

(The writer is an Environmental Lawyer based in New Delhi)

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