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Single law mooted to replace air, water, environment acts

The official added that the reason it makes sense to have one law is because provisions of the existing air, water, and environment laws overlap
Water pollution during an immersion ceremony seen in this file picture at Yamuna river bank near ISBT in New Delhi. ( Arvind Yadav/ Hindustan Times)
Updated on Mar 17, 2021 08:57 AM IST
ByJayashree Nandi, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

India could soon have a single law governing air, water and environment-related activities, one of the senior-most officials in the environment ministry said on Tuesday. The Union environment ministry plans to table a new environmental management law that will subsume the Air Act 1981, Water Act 1974, and the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 and serve as an overarching law for governance of environmental issues in India.

“This is not regarding amendment of environmental acts. We are trying to come out with a consolidated act i.e an environment management act. Environment includes air and water so why should there be separate air and water pollution acts? This whole issue should be dealt with comprehensively, which is the basic idea (of the new law),” the top environment ministry official said, asking not to be named.

The official added that the reason it makes sense to have one law is because provisions of the existing air, water, and environment laws overlap. The new law will also introduce provisions related to environmental compensation: “For violators, we currently have provisions to close the industry or imprisonment but there is no provision for environmental compensation which courts have been pronouncing through judgements. The purpose (of the new law) is to make them (violators) fall in line rather than take extreme steps such as shutting down industries or imprisonment.”

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The ministry has commissioned law firm J Sagar Associates to draft the new law that will be put in the public domain for comments once it’s ready.

A Central Pollution Control Board report on the methodology for assessing environmental compensation says it is a policy instrument for the protection of the environment which works on the polluter pays principle.

The official said that the new law will factor in experience from over three decades of how the current laws have worked and international benchmarks on how environmental issues are tackled. The law will introduce new environment management tools such as emissions trading schemes and extended producer responsibility, he explained. “There are other tools also prevalent internationally which can better manage the same issue in a small cost. We saw those gaps in the current regulations.” The law firm is expected to take five to six months to come up with a draft.

Amit Kapur, joint managing partner at J Sagar Associates, declined comment citing confidentiality.

The environment ministry constituted a high-level committee headed by former cabinet secretary, TSR Subramaniam in 2014 to review six environmental laws. The committee proposed a new model umbrella law, Environment Law (Management Act) or ELMA, incorporating the concept of utmost good faith where applicants of environment or forest clearance are responsible for their statements.

One of the country’s most prominent environmental lawyers said that there is a need for separate laws. “ The environment protection act is an enabling law which enables the environment ministry to issue various notifications like the environment impact assessment notification, the coastal regulation zone etc. They do not need to go to the Parliament every time to do that. Air and water are always treated separately. Even in the US there are separate legislations because the nature of evidence and impact is very different. We are in an age of specialisation and we need separate specialised laws to deal with these important issues. This is why we have separate legislation on biodiversity, wildlife and forests,” said Ritwick Dutta, environmental lawyer.

He added that the implementation of air and water act is faulty. “Instead of using them to act against air and water pollution, they are mainly used to give consent to industries to operate or establish.”

Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research said that since 2014, the ministry has been working on the law but that “the entire process has been a closed-door affair without any public engagement even though it involves overhauling of laws which form the foundation of environment regulation in India.”

She also criticised the way the proposed law looks at violations. “Legacy pollution, environmental damage and social conflicts can be found across project sites, be it in industrial clusters, mining areas, ports or in the construction of roads, highways, transmission infrastructure. The proposed legal framework discards the precautionary approach for environmental protection and normalizes the occurrence of environmental damage. It also reduces legal violations to a routine matter that can be managed through monetary payments.”

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