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Wait for a green signal

Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh announced his intention to introduce a Bill related to the setting up of a new National Environment Protection Authority (Nepa) in the 2010 monsoon session of Parliament. The UPA shouldn’t circumvent debate on the need for a new agency on the environment, write Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon.

india Updated: May 13, 2010 23:30 IST

Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh announced his intention to introduce a Bill related to the setting up of a new National Environment Protection Authority (Nepa) in the 2010 monsoon session of Parliament. With this, the Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF) seeks to bring in a new institutional structure for the governance of environment clearances for development and infrastructure projects. It’s also to look at the dismal state of the monitoring and compliance (by project authorities) of the conditions laid out for projects and activities at the time of approvals.

At present these processes are carried out under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). Over the past 16 years of the existence of the notification, problems of flawed environmental assessments financed by project developers, biases and conflict of interest in advisory bodies, and little or no attention paid to the objections to projects have continued. The ministry seeks yet another administrative reform to address these issues.

The intent for Nepa was first announced by the prime minister at the National Conference of Ministers for Environment and Forests from all states in August 2009. A discussion note was then uploaded on the MoEF website inviting public comments. Even as few in the country were debating on Nepa’s need and design, the prime minster, during his visit to the US, demonstrated a hasty commitment to the idea the UPA government cleared. Among the many agreements signed during the November 2009 visit there, one was with the United States Environment Protection Authority (USEPA) to help set up Nepa in India. In the same month, the MoEF also had a consultation with state governments seeking their response. The PM’s intent and rush to commit to establish a Nepa has much to do with the USEPA’s announcement of a grant for the establishment of such a legal authority. The USEPA grant to our government is for the enforcement of environmental requirements and technical assistance on matters of environmental governance, specifically through a new medium of Nepa.

Since then, there’s been much activity — US researchers have been in India giving specific inputs to the MoEF.

The Natural Resources Defence Council, a leading US-based not-for-profit entity has been helping the MoEF shape up Nepa.

The MoEF says that it carried out a study on the USEPA in January 2010 and the Indian Institute of Technology was awarded a consultancy in February 2010 to propose a mandate and structure for an independent regulatory authority for the protection of the environment. While so much has been done and USEPA’s grant spent, the public has remained an inconsequential body, useless to the government in these exercises. Even the parliamentarians seem to think that the question of Nepa is still an open one, as per the March 2010 Lok Sabha submission made by the MoEF.

There is no disagreement over the objective that our environment needs a better regulatory system. But there’s been no consensus whatsoever that an institution like Nepa will be that better system. Rather than investigating into the causes of environmental problems only in faulty or inefficient institutions and dissolving/disempowering them and creating new ones in their place, we need a more nuanced and careful reading of the problem. The prime minister and the ministry have almost decided that Nepa is the key to our environmental problems and have made a grand declaration that such an apex national body of experts can solve complex issues that are political, social and ecological at the same time. Such a move takes the energy and attention away from the ongoing negotiations that are on between governments and people in different locations to find ways out.

Today there is a draft Bill to amend the Environment Protection Act, 1986, and institute Nepa. Such a predecided action on the part of the government needs public debate on basic questions about the causes of environmental problems and who can be trusted to help solve them well before parliamentarians take it up in the next working session.

Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon are with Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group

The views expressed by the authors are personal