The environment ministry has invited proposals to help implement the controversial TSR Subramanian Committee recommendations.

Photo Credit: Spykster/Flickr
The Narendra Modi government is changing the rulebook for environment regulation in the country and seeking corporate India’s help to do so. In August, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change set up a committee headed by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian to evaluate and recommend changes to five environment laws. The ministry has now invited applications from Indian companies to come onboard as technical consultants to help implement those recommendations.

On Tuesday, the ministry issued a Request for Proposal [PDF] from “interested and competent Indian firms” to provide inputs on how the government can set up a whole new structure for environment protection. This new structure, as per the TSR recommendations, will be targeted at easing environment clearances for industrial projects.

Industry has long wanted a single-window system of clearances to get their projects going faster and the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party promised exactly this as far back as its election manifesto before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Assisting the ministry

According to the RFP, the technical consultant “shall develop a framework and appropriate structure for the project and assist the authority [ministry] in finalisation of environment and related laws”. The applicant, that has to be an Indian firm or consortium of firms, will have to constitute a team of experts in environment, law, social development and sustainable development but also include, the RFP specifies, a specialist in mining, industry or infrastructure.

The RFP for an industry consultant is the first sign that the government has accepted the TSR Subramanian report, which has come under widespread criticism. The committee relies too heavily on good behavior and self-regulation by corporate India. The report borrows the insurance concept of “utmost good faith” to recommend a system by which the government will grant environment clearance based on a company’s self-declaration of what effluents will be released in the course of its manufacturing process and how it plans to clean them up.

In a series analysing the TSR Subramanian spoke to environmental researchers, lawyers and activists who believe that this “utmost good faith” is misplaced and likely to be misused. They pointed out that while small-scale projects that needed only state-level clearance were regularly flouting clearance procedures, backers of large projects with hundreds of crores of rupees at stake would have little incentive to reveal information that can be used against them in their applications. Even the committee’s recommended punitive action in case of misrepresentation of facts may not be enough.

The RFP focuses only on the problem of pollution while laying out the reason for a new environmental regime. But the TSR Subramanian committee has made sweeping recommendations to as many as five laws: the Environment (Protection) Act, the Forest (Conservation) Act, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act. It has recommended the creation of a National Environmental Management Authority which will be responsible for implementation of all these laws, new and old.

While the TSR Subramanian report aims for a single-window clearance system, it proposes shutting down the single-window system for redressing environment complaints, namely the National Green Tribunal. The tribunal has been the only moderately successful attempt at ensuring fast and fair environment justice in the country.  Under the new regime, its powers will be severely curtailed.

The proposed system to replace the tribunal consists of three bodies instead of one: a Special Environmental Court, an Appellate Board and the National Green Tribunal itself. Complainants will have less time to file their grievances with the court, and will have to prove their bona fides and will be penalized if the case is found to have no merit.

Critics are aghast

In a recent interview to CNBC-TV18, environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta lashed out at such high-handedness. “The Indian Constitution very clearly says under Art 51A(g) that it’s fundamental duty of every citizen to protect the environment and have compassion for all living beings,” he said. “High Level Committee says, no; you can’t have it, it is the government’s prerogative to do what it wants to do, the business entity has a right to pollute it and if you dare to come to a court of law, be prepared to face penal consequences if you lose your matter.”

Another recommendation by the committee which had drawn severe criticism is that of notifying forests with 70% or more canopy coverand protected areas as “no-go” areas for clearances, to define forests and to streamline the process for forest clearances. This will leave moderately dense or open forests that cover around 93% of India’s land open to polluting projects.

The main worry of the detractors of the TSR Subramanian report is that it is skewed in favour of big business as opposed to the person on the ground who will be have to deal with losing land or breathing smoky air and drinking mucky water. Bringing on an industry consultant will likely tilt the balance further in the same direction.