The High Level Committee constituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) vide OM 22-15/2014-IA-III on August 29, 2014 to review the Acts related to environment and forest and composition of the committee, without having any experts in the field of Environmental Science, Forestry & Wildlife, Natural Resource Management, Social Scientist etc has tempt us to believe that it was constituted with a very skewed objective: to fast pace environment and forest clearances to projects.

The time limit given to the committee initially was for two months, which was given an extension of one month to deal with a heavy terms of reference. Without having a single expert, the panel has been given such a mammoth task to assess the status of implementation of all the six important Acts related to Environment, Forest and Wildlife and taking into account various court orders and judicial pronouncements within such a short span of time. It clearly shows the lack of seriousness on the part of MoEF and the intention to get a convenient report that may enable them to move forward, as they wanted.

The High Level Committee has done exactly what was expected from it within the set time frame. Instead of making objective assessment on the implementation of the existing Acts and highlighting the shortcomings in its enforcement, its consequences and keeping in mind the various judicial orders in this regard, the Committee has taken upon itself the role of drafting a new bill with a novel caption “The Environment Laws (Management) Bill” with overriding effect over all the substantive environment laws and court orders preceding this bill. This clearly shows that the Committee has gone beyond its terms of reference and instead of suggesting specific amendments in each of the Acts, tried to suggest and supplant with a new Law, so as to, facilitate the clearance process by removing all the existing safeguards, considering them to be bottlenecks in the process.

It gives a clear cue from the terms of reference in which the HLC is tasked to recommend specific amendments in each of the related Acts so as to bring them in line with ‘current requirement’ to meet ‘objectives’. The term ‘current requirement’ and ‘objectives’ are not clearly spelt out and this vagueness appears to be deliberate. It is commonly believed that the ‘current requirement’ is the requirement of industrial houses to get clearances at a faster pace and to meet their ‘objectives’ without any detailed environmental scrutiny.

It was thought that the panel would hold wider consultations with all the stakeholders, expert groups and institutions before submitting its recommendation, but, the break-neck speed with which it submitted the report and the lightening speed in which the MoEF accepted the report makes the whole exercise suspicious. The two-three months time is obviously too short to do justice to the terms of reference for the committee, in engaging in a meaningful way with all stakeholders and persons possessing adequate knowledge in the subject backed by wealth of field experience. This shortcoming is visible in the report as it missed out certain valid, relevant and crucial facts, while preparing the report.

The issues of environment, forest, wildlife and

bio-diversity are closely intertwined and need careful and delicate handling, keeping in mind the overall eco-system. It requires deeper understanding of myriad systems at work in nature and how these systems play out, if handled by humans for any reason, right or wrong. Past experiences are better guide and provides opportunity to fashion our action carefully. Only persons with thorough knowledge of science and experience of field would be able to visualize the negative consequences of inept handling. It appears that the HLC is not equipped to handle the task assigned to it, as it did not possess the expertise and exposure needed for the job. Men drawn from civil services and judiciary may be having enough experience in dealing with mundane matters but subject like forests and environment requires some deeper understanding to fathom the problems. Half baked ideas and leaning on the presumption of ‘utmost good faith’ of the project proponent is not going to address deep rooted problems of this sector. Devising a new legal architecture as a quick fix solution may not be of any help, if we are really keen to find solutions to the problems.

Protection of environment, forests and wildlife is basis of our very survival and quality of life. Right to life which includes clean environment is one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of India and any legislation or process or system which attenuates this basic right is anathema to our dignified existence. The present HLC’s report needs to be seen and examined in this light rather than on the scale of ‘ease of doing business’ in India.

Now, let us turn to the specifics. The strategy suggested to notify areas with 70% or more canopy cover as “no go’ area, provides ample room to expose almost all the forest area in the country for diversion, as majority of the forest area has a canopy density less than said percentage. How the Committee had arrived at this cut-off percentage is also not clear. Apart from this, to qualify a forest area only on the basis of canopy density is erroneous and dangerous.

It belittles the importance of open forests which provides a valuable substratum to a rich bio-community and provides ecosystem services to vast majority. No amount of ‘compensatory afforestation’ effort could bring back the natural forest, which is home to hundreds of native species. Many are endemic to a particular area, and once such rare bio-community, the economic significance of which is not known to us for the present is lost, then it is lost forever. Mercifully, the HLC has left the Protected Areas, but there again left an avenue that in exceptional circumstances, and with prior approval of the Union Cabinet, even that can be diverted for non forestry purposes.

A new concept of ‘utmost good faith’ was suggested to remove the so called ‘Inspector Raj’ to facilitate the clearance process of projects. This expression is solely based on rhetoric in an atmosphere which is mired in a credibility crisis. A huge reliance is placed on the good faith of project proponent on his self-declaration about the environment impact of the project and his efforts on mitigating the same. This is totally unacceptable, given the abysmal track record of industries in flouting the conditions of clearance with impunity and utter negligence. Expecting that they would adhere to the principal of ‘utmost good faith’ is either naive or clever way of facilitating the project proponent to bypass the existing scrutiny.

Similarly, the HLC has suggested a reduced role of public consultation and emphasized on only local participation. This is a clear move to exclude wider consultation mechanism as it is considered detrimental to the interest of project proponent, possibly because many relevant and vital environmental issues may not be satisfactorily replied by the proponent. Probably this is the reason that the principal of ‘utmost good faith’ is brought in.

The proposed Environment Laws (Management) Bill needs an overriding effect on all environmental laws and over all the judgments or court orders. This provision is untenable as the suggested legal architecture only deals with the management part of the environmental law which cannot override the substantive environment laws, which the proposed law under clause 2(d) defines as:

“Environment laws mean Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, The Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and The Indian Forest Act, 1927 and the Rules, Regulations or Notifications under these Acts having the force of law.”

The High Level Committee’s recommendation has not touched the issues of Indian Forest Act, 1927 which is in need of thorough re-look as it is found inadequate in addressing the present day requirement. Gram Sabhas. The Act is supposed to lay emphasis on the ecological concern and biodiversity conservation so that the grasslands and wetlands are also being taken together as a biotic community and as a livelihood factor to the local community. Transit rules and felling regulations are to be refined in such a way that the local communities need not to seek permission from the government authority for felling of trees and transporting the timber, which is grown in their land. This would encourage them to plant tree species on their fallow land and such land will be put to its optimal productive use. Likewise, the Act needs revamping in many aspects like the role of Joint Forest Management Committees in the participatory forest management and their link with the Panchayati Raj Institutions and The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 also needed certain changes to incorporate international obligations as the country had signed number of treaties and covenants. At present only Criminal Liability is imposed on offenders and there is no provision to recover compensation, restitution, for the damages. Similarly the notifications issued under the EP ACT and Rules also needed some streamlining, which could have been suggested by the HLC.

These deficiencies in the report clearly show that the HLC has concentrated only on identifying the cause of delay in clearing industrial projects and to remove difficulties it has suggested changes, ignoring many vital aspects of forestry, wildlife, biodiversity and overall environment. The HLC could have served better by focusing on the issues highlighted by the Forestry Commission, and concentrated only to the Terms of Reference. In all, the HLC report is prepared with a blinkered vision; short-term thinking and a missed opportunity. The deficiencies are to be corrected before giving effect to its recommendations.

Now, in this direction, the MoEF should convene a meeting of experts to get comments on this Report before attempting to make any major policy or legislative shift as suggested in this report. This is very much needed to have a holistic view on the range of issues. Science should be directed by scientists and scientific priorities and not to side with political exigencies, and any attempt to dilute this cardinal principal would be at the risk of eroding further people’s faith in the system.

*Author is expert in forest & environment issues and well known thinker & motivator