Hammer Blow: Editorial on environment protection laws
Environment protection laws have recently received setbacks at the hands of institutions that are supposed to be their protectors in a number of countries. In a massive blow to President Joe Biden’s environmental agenda, theSupreme Court of the United States of America restricted the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions. Soon after, news emerged that the Union environment ministry in India intends to dilute certain provisions of the Environment Protection Act by replacing a clause that provides for the imprisonment of violators with one that simply requires a fine, except in cases of grave injury or loss of life. Currently, the EPA allows for the imprisonment of violators to up to five years or a fine of up to one lakh rupees, or both — the revised fines would be five to 500 times greater. Furthermore, the proposal seeks to appoint an ‘adjudication officer’ to decide on the penalty in cases of violations. The provision of prison term would be removed from the Air Act as well as the Water Act.
The alleged weakening of preventive clauses of environmental laws is consistent with the blind eye that elected regimes cast on India’s fragile ecology. There have been several attempts to reduce public participation, exempt some projects from rigorous appraisal, and legalise others that are operating without environmental approval by the Narendra Modi government. For instance, in 2021, the Centre suggested amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 to allow for the use of certain categories of forest land for non-forestry purposes without its permission. Now the Centre, it is alleged, is weakening the Forest Rights Act as well. Repeated and incremental amendments to forest laws have watered down the requirement of consent from gram sabhas for the diversion of land. India has a rich history of environmental justice movements, especially by forest-dwelling communities, which are the first to bear the brunt of the crisis. The global push towards the restriction of the powers of environmental protection laws threatens to do away with the hard-earned triumphs of indigenous groups and grassroots, vulnerable communities. In this age of flagrant ecological mauling, institutional protection for the environment and communities dependent on threatened ecosystems must be strengthened, not weakened.