One of the key agendas of the BJP before the 2014 general elections was legislative reforms. On the whole, it was a positive agenda. But the sad part is that immediately after forming the government, several pieces of environmental legislation have been axed. For two years now, the environment ministry has painstakingly drafted and gazetted notifications that leave environmental principles by the wayside, and instead allow ‘ease of business’.
In June 2014, the environment ministry put in place technical committee to examine the issues that coastal states have with the 2011 Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification.
This notification is the legal framework for regulating development on the coast and conservation of local livelihoods. It has clauses for land use change, proactive conservation initiatives and mapping of the coastal zone.
Read | Govt reviewing CRZ policy
According to the International Collective in support of Fisheries (ICSF), any change in the 2011CRZ notification will directly impact over 3,200 marine fishing villages.
According to the 2005 Marine Fisheries Census, there are 756,212 households — a total of 3.52 million people — along mainland India’s coastline. Nearly half of this population is engaged in fishing and related activities.
A six-member committee was set up under the chairmanship of Shailesh Nayak, then secretary, ministry of earth sciences, to examine issues of coastal states and “the errors or inconsistencies and procedural simplification in the said Notification”.
After extensive meetings with states, the Nayak panel submitted its report and recommendations in January 2015.
The ministry did not disclose the report or entertain RTI applications asking for it. It was denied under the pretext that the ministry had not accepted it and, therefore, no one could have access to it.
After 16 months of consistent pressure, the report was released on May 13.
The public information officer stated to the Central Information Commission that he could not provide the report because it remained in the minister’s office and no one else had seen it.
Now that the ministry has been forced to disclose the report, its claim that the report was not accepted and so not disclosed rings untrue.
A comparison of the amendments to the CRZ law, which the ministry has carried out, shows that even though the report was not publically approved by the ministry, it has been the basis of these amendments.
For instance, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) in their suggestions to the committee had sought an amendment to the CRZ notification that would allow for the construction of a coastal road. What they specifically asked for was an amendment to a clause, which would allow “land reclamation for construction of coastal roads”.
According to report, the MCGM “proposes to develop promenades, gardens and green spaces” in the reclaimed area.
Another amendment issued by the ministry in June 2015 draws directly from a new draft CRZ notification proposed by the committee.
This allows for buildings to be constructed behind all existing structures and roads in CRZ II areas, as per existing town and country planning norms.
It removes an earlier safeguard that if a road itself had been constructed on the seaward side of another existing road, then the area between the old and new road cannot be built up. The real estate sector in several coastal cities like Mangalore, Chennai, Mumbai or Kochi will benefit from this provision.
This practice of bringing out incremental amendments is a grim reminder of the 25 amendments to the 1991 notification that had the effect of destabilising the CRZ law to the point of utter confusion.
Instead of making piecemeal changes, the ministry could have made the report public and engage coastal citizens in an inclusive reform process.
The Nayak panel report is the ministry’s roadmap for coastal regulation and this remained its closely guarded secret.
The CIC order states emphatically that the ministry “cannot invent a new defence or exemption such as ‘the report is under submission’, ‘file is pending consideration’ and ‘unless approved it cannot be given’, to deny information under the RTI. It builds on another order issued in October 2008 for a RTI application on the amendments to the environment impact assessment (EIA) notification. In that case, the commissioner ordered the public authority “to put up different drafts on the Internet, as they evolve so that stakeholders are continuously aware of the concerns being deliberated upon and incorporated.”
Several of our environment laws are now socialised by popular movements and public action for a better environment. The 2011 CRZ notification is one such law that has the imprint of negotiations between coastal communities and government. The 2011 version came out of intense and long discussions between the then minister and fishing unions, state governments and investors. This law is a social contract between the government and all those who took part in the process. It cannot be given up because another party has taken charge of the ministry and the government, and refuses to take its citizens on board its agenda for reform.
Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon are with Centre for Policy Research (CPR)-Namati Environment Justice Program
The views expressed are personal