The High Level Committee (HLC) set up by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) on August 29, 2014, comprising former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramanian as Chairperson, former Secretary to Government of India Vishwanath Anand, former High Court Judge K Srivastava and former Additional Solicitor General of India KN Bhat as members, submitted its 113-page report in less than three months' time, on November 20, 2014. Except Vishwanath Anand having the dubious distinction of dismissing every single appeal when he was the vice chairperson of the National Environment Appellate Authority, none of the other members of the HLC including its chairperson has had any prior experience in the sphere of environment. The Report of the HLC that reviewed the Environmental Laws of India is now before the Parliamentary Committee on Science, Technology, Environment and Forest for its consideration. Constituted with the explicit purpose of making Modi's Make in India programme a grand success and hence prepared in great haste, the Subramanian Committee Report is replete with factual inaccuracies, wrong and misleading conclusions and incorrect interpretations of the laws it was meant to review. If accepted, the Report will spell doom for the environment and infringe on people's inalienable right to their habitat, an eco-friendly life, clean air and water. In order to lay the red carpet for corporate investors through enhancing 'ease of doing business' (the phrase was coined by World Bank) and abolishing 'inspector raj', the Subramanian Committee has entrusted the task of environmental protection to the corporate capitalist-technocratic combine itself.
The Subramanian Committee's task has been liberalization of all the existing environmental laws and regulations in the country as an essential component of corporatization today. More specifically, direct appropriation/plunder of nature including land and natural resources has become one of the major forms of wealth appropriation by corporate giants under neo-liberalism. As the Make in India programme envisages, setting up of "quick single-window approvals for investment projects," reviewing "all regulatory processes with a view to making them simple and reducing the burden of compliance on investors," bringing pro-corporate amendments to the Land Acquisition Act for overcoming people's resistance against large-scale displacement from habitats and above all implementing fast track environmental clearances including self-monitoring by corporate companies who seldom respect even mandatory regulations, etc., are indispensable. Thus the Subramanian Committee was entrusted with the duty of diluting and even making inoperative the key environment protection laws—Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) of 1972, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974, Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981, Environment Protection Act (EPA) of 1986, and even the Indian Forest Act (IFA) of 1927, the colonial law which governs the forest administration—prevailing in India. In fact, an overview of the Committee's suggestions also reveals the manner in which it has overstepped its terms of reference by changing even the framework of environmental justice (like the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 and the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010). The Subramanian Committee even recommends new pro-corporate environmental legislation like the Environmental Laws (Management) Act(ELMA), envisaging the replacement of all the existing enforcement mechanisms by the creation of a National Environment Management Authority at the centre and State Environment Management Authorities at state levels as umbrella bodies such that their decisions would prevail over all contrary judgments issued in the past or the provisions of any environment law promulgated till date.
1. The foremost suggestion from the Subramanian Committee, as already noted, is the establishment of a National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) as the apex body for environmental clearance in the country. In the same manner, State Pollution Control Boards will be superseded by State Environment Management Authorities (SEMA).
2. Since the Committee's most important concern is increasing the "speed" of the environmental approval process rather than environmental protection, it recommends the completion of all proposals for environment impact inquiries within ten days of the first filing of the applicant's request.
After site specific verification within days (which, obviously, is an impossible schedule), the NEMA or SEMA is supposed to recommend approval or rejection (with reasons) within two months of receiving the application. If this is not done, then the environment impact assessment will be left entirely to the corporate investor.
3. Environment impact assessment should be limited to the initial stage of the project. No further environment impact assessment will be authorized after the initial stage in spite of evidences showing the need of further assessment or studies.
4. Subramanian Committee proposes to abolish any need for public hearings on projects where people's settlements are located away from the project site. (In fact several projects can seriously harm people even if they are living far away from the project sites.)
5. Related to this is the curtailment in the name of 'genuine local participation' of people's involvement and stake-holder participation in impact studies. That is, according to the Subramanian Committee, public participation in environment impact assessment studies should be limited to local people. This excludes those whose livelihood sources may indirectly or remotely be destroyed, contaminated or poisoned by the project through soil, water and air.
And in the case of so called projects of 'national importance', projects of 'strategic importance', projects to be setup in industrial and manufacturing zones; projects in areas of high pollution; projects which are located away from settlements; and 'linear projects' including transmission lines, roads, irrigation canals, etc., the Committee has ingeniously tried to curtail people's resentment in the guise of its definition of 'genuine local participation'.
6. Projects of strategic importance and power and mining projects which are "engines of the nation's growth"are put on a separate 'faster track'.
That is, in the name of schemes having the tag "National Projects", hundreds of thousands of hectares of people's habitat, multi-crop fertile agricultural land, forest land, or land whose acquisition may result in complete destruction of the region's ecosystem may easily be appropriated by the corporate mafia. For instance, Polavaram Dam alone can submerge nearly 300 villages in three states.
The existing environmental laws in India assign the central and state governments and other institutions the role of protector of environment and ecosystem. For instance, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) as a quasi-judicial body in recent years has emerged as an effective grievance relief mechanism on environmental issues. The move on the part of Subramanian Committee to dilute the role of the NGT is a clear attempt to insulate the pro-corporate governmental decisions from judicial scrutiny. It has recommended that power to review the decisions should be vested in a body comprising serving and retired secretaries to the Government. The basic constitutional scheme of separation of powers is thus sabotaged. Thus, if the Subramanian Committee Report is adopted, then the State will have to abdicate its protective role mandated under the Constitution and the ecosystem will be left to the mercy of the corporate investor and the country and its people will have to rely on his/her 'Utmost Good Faith'. It will render people voiceless in the case of more than 51000 projects including over 1000 big PPP projects which are already in the pipeline. The Subramanian report is a violation of the Rio Declaration of 1992 and other International Treaties that the comprador Indian regime is signatory to. Led by a bureaucrat having scant respect for the current environmental realities and climate change concerns including such threats as global warming, the report is out and out pro-corporate and hence anti-people.
Not only its recommendations, the method and the whole process of drafting the Report have been arbitrary. The most damaging aspect of the Report is its absolute contempt for people's voices and total denial of democratic space in the environmental decision making process. The "consultation meetings" that the Committee had selected in urban locations were stage-managed affairs where only selected individuals were invited while leaders and activists of people's movements were effectively excluded. Details of such consultations are not made available for public scrutiny. Though public comments were invited, it was with a rider that comments should not exceed 1000 characters. While drafting the report, even the nominal rights of Gram Sabhas pertaining to environmental issues were totally sidestepped. The Committee's approach to forest and wildlife conservation was based on its own preconceived notions, glossing over the harmful impacts already suffered by the environment on account of destructive projects in both ecologically fragile areas and people's habitats.
As already noted, the Subramanian Committee – committed to serving the interests of corporate capital – stands for a thorough overhaul of the entire legal procedure and regulatory framework in respect of environment. For instance, as per the existing environment protection regulation in the country, any false information provided at the time of impact appraisal is a violation of Environment Protection Act and invites punishment.
However, according to the Committee, reports submitted to NEMA or SEMA will be final subject to the satisfaction of these agencies comprising mainly corporate-friendly bureaucrats nominated by the government. The possibility of any action taken against false information in environment impact assessment reports is thus effectively excluded.
An exhaustive evaluation of the Subramanian Committee Report is not the scope of this brief note. Even without a close scrutiny, it can safely be stated that the Report is highly regressive. It fully serves corporate interests. If accepted, it would result in an environmental catastrophe in India. It is intended to legitimize the Modi government's corporate agenda. The existing environmental laws and regulations in India, however feeble they may be, are impediments to the series of mega projects such as industrial corridors, smart cities, high speed rails, expressways, SEZs and a whole set of projects for rapid urbanization of the country that are envisaged under the umbrella of Make in India.
The Report formulated at the behest of corporate forces is highly detrimental to the people and the environment. It envisages the unleashing of one of the biggest natural resource plunders by corporate capital. There is no question of debate or discussion on this draconian report. Like the vicious Land Acquisition Bill of the Modi regime, the Subramanian Report on environment should be rejected in its entirety.
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