What's in store for India's ecology in 2016? Now that the new year is upon us, what's the biggest red flag facing the country's environment?
For the answers, we'll need to shift our gaze from the jungle to the concrete jungle that is New Delhi, and specifically, to Parliament House.
In 2016, the government is expected to bring in legislation in the Lok Sabha that promises to have far-reaching affects on the environment. And not in a way to spark optimism.
While one of them weakens the National Green Tribunal, the other empowers governments to plant vast tracts of trees to compensate for chopping down thick forests.
Let's start with the forests.
Status: Introduced in the Lok Sabha. It was referred to a parliamentary committee, which is expected to submit its report by end-January.
Compensatory afforestation means that if a forest needs to be chopped down (for mining, or to build a factory), the same number of trees should be planted elsewhere. The loss in green cover is thus compensated.
But to pay for planting trees, the government takes a specified amount of money from the company that cuts down the forest.
The policy has been around for at least a decade, but there was no proper management of its funds. As a result, almost Rs 35,000 crore are unutilised. The 2015 Bill will open up these funds, and what comes in the future.
But critics say that the Bill is speeding up an idea that is flawed in the first place.
Here's how one former member of the National Board of Wild Life puts it: "Imagine turning the Taj Mahal into a special economic zone, and as compensation, building a similar monument somewhere else. It's stupid, and this is what the government wants to do to the forests."
Ecologists say that forests are nearly irreplaceable. Old forests have a variety of trees, plants and weeds, which also support a wide range of animals and insects. That's the idea of a healthy forest.
CA, in contrast, makes plantations with just one or two species - like eucalyptus or teak. They are neither ecologically rich nor do they support a variety of plants and animals.
Even if mixed species are planted, it takes at least a century for the plantation to become as biodiverse as old forests. Besides, one large forest is always considered better than a large number of small dispersed forests.
Wildlife experts also point out that compensating the forest in a different location doesn't help wild animals - especially when elephant or tiger corridors are the ones getting chopped down.
Finally, there is one elephant in the room - the question of whose land the trees will be planted on, and how it will be acquired. Forest rights activists have in the past highlighted how afforestation has taken place on cultivated lands belonging to forest-dwelling communities.
Status: Draft law ready, yet to be introduced in Parliament.
Ever since it was established over five years ago, the NGT has played a crucial role in safeguarding the environment. The government's decisions on forest and environmental clearances can be challenged in the NGT, and its verdict can only be appealed in the Supreme Court. It has, so far, take a strong position against both corporates and the government.
Now the government wants to amend the NGT's legal basis itself. The Environmental Laws (Amendments) Bill, 2015, seeks to reduce the NGT's powers by amending both the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
While the NGT will continue to exist, the ministry's decisions will only allowed to be challenged in a new adjudicating authority. But the members of this body will be decided by the government itself, and can even consist of government officials.
The NGT, by contrast, is quite independent - it has both judicial and expert members, and is headed by a retired Supreme Court judge or high court chief justice.
The new authority runs the risk of being a rubber stamp.
There may be more legislation on its way besides these two Bills, which have either been introduced in Parliament or are ready to be introduced. The Modi government wants to change all the green laws of the country, with the singular objective of making life easier for business. And that does not necessarily mean it is good for the environment.
Soon after coming to power, it appointed a committee, headed by retired bureaucrat TSR Subramanian, to take a fresh look at the six main environmental laws. In just three months, the committee submitted its report, recommending a major overhaul of the environmental laws.
It recommended reducing the extent of forests areas where no mining would be allowed (called "no-go" areas), and fast-tracking coal mining projects. Instead of making it more difficult for companies to break rules, its recommendation was to trust the industries to follow the rules (based on "utmost good faith").
The report was in August rejected by a parliamentary committee, but largely on the grounds that it did not carry out enough consultations. The government has been advised to set up a fresh committee to rectify this. But there's little scope for change. The government was very excited about the TSR report; it even hired private consulting firms to help implement its recommendations.
Given this, any new committee the government will set up - and the amendments that would result from it - offer scant hope for a happy new year.
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