Saving livelihood: Parliament panel sets an example

Saving livelihood: Parliament panel sets an example

On July 22, 2009, the Coastal Management Zone (CMZ) notification proposed by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) issued almost a year ago, lapsed. This is a result of the relentless opposition by fisherfolk groups from all coastal states ever since the idea of a new notification was initiated in 2006. The notification posed a threat to their traditional rights and proposed to create a management regime that would have led to coastal land grab.

The fisherfolk had a critical ally in this struggle — the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests. A good precedent has been set by the committee that has done what it is best at: Go out and speak to the ‘aam janta’ and understand the reasons for their unified opposition to the notification.

The role of Parliament in enacting Central laws is well known. However, the treatment of delegated legislations like notifications issued under a parent Act is what is hidden from public eye; and often from the MPs too. In the case of environmental issues, this opacity has cost the poor of this country immeasurably.

The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), and Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notifications are two critical regulations of the Environment Protection Act, 1986. Under the jurisdiction of the MoEF, these have been at the core of the environmental decision making process in the country for the last two decades.

A large number of developmental and industrial projects need to follow mandatory steps for assessment of impacts and public hearings in order to obtain an environmental clearance. An additional CRZ approval is required for projects to be located in coastal areas.

However, project developers and proponents of speedy economic growth maintain that these regulations are mere hurdles causing time and cost overruns and have consistently lobbied to dilute these regulations. Together, the EIA and CRZ notifications have been amended almost once a year to allow for exemptions despite widespread protests and opposition to these proposals. In the case of the CRZ, most of these amendments have been made without seeking public suggestions. Instead they have been based on reports by ‘expert committees’ set up by different ministries comprising economists, environmental engineers and NGO representatives claiming technical and scientific expertise on environmental subjects.

Both EIA and CRZ notifications were reviewed in the last four years. The changes made to the EIA regulations were previewed and influenced by industry associations like CII, ASSOCHAM and FICCI. The review of the CRZ saw the involvement of hoteliers and investor groups. Those who stood to be directly affected by the outcomes of these notifications, the marginal communities who live in forest areas, landless farmers and fisherfolk were conspicuous by their absence. Both review committees were populated by ‘experts’.

People’s rejection

The effects of the review are that the number of projects cleared under the EIA notification has shot up 10 times in the last two and half years, the rate of rejection has come down and the public challenges to these projects due to their impacts are sharply on the rise. The newly drafted CMZ notification that was drawn up by an expert group under Dr M S Swaminathan’s chairmanship was burnt, torn and rejected by all fishworker unions and communities. Public hearings under the EIA notification are marred by violent agitations by the affected people.

It is at this juncture that the parliamentary committee took a bold step to investigate what had gone wrong with the newly proposed CMZ notification. The MPs responded not in the fashion that expert committees do but as a body that represents the interests of poor voters. Rather than sitting down to draft a report based on its own wisdom, it set up a detailed itinerary to five coastal states, sought comments through press releases, met with government functionaries, coastal communities and NGOs alike.

This included the principal drafter of the notification and those who oppose it. The committee painstakingly heard the complaints of fisher unions, fishworker communities, organisations working for their land rights and researchers who have studied the risks faced by communities due to pollution and disasters like the tsunami.

The committee collected copies of memorandums and petitions made to the MoEF and state governments, research reports and papers written on these issues and news paper clippings from various states on coastal matters. Dr Maitreyan, the chairman of the committee, even distributed his mobile number to those who could not make it to meet the committee at any of the venues. For a constituency that has been knocking its head against a walled bureaucracy, this meant a lot.

Three lessons this committee teaches are that MPs cannot enact a law and not investigate what is being done in the name of its implementation. They must play a greater role in determining what is being done to delegated legislations, especially when they could affect the lives of the poorest people. Finally, democratic practice must be upheld in law-making by all arms of the government.

This parliamentary committee has firmly stood in favour of the coastal communities. The report reflects sensitivity towards their lives and livelihood, and emphasises the importance of community-led, local level planning over centralised, expert and investor-driven processes for managing the environment and peoples’ lives.

While their report in itself is a shot in the arm for the struggle waged by coastal people who live in the margins of our imagination, the committee has demonstrated how things must be done.

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