Firefighting in India

Guest post by Anna da Costa

A workshop to discuss major reforms to India’s environmental-governance system was held in Delhi this week. It was hosted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and inputs were invited from central and state government, business and civil-society stakeholders on a proposal for a National Environmental Protection Authority (NEPA).

“Every day, I receive hundreds of emails from civil society reporting environmental violations, and right now we are firefighting”, said environment minister Jairam Ramesh at the meeting, pointing to his ministry’s current lack of capacity to prevent, monitor and respond to such violations.

“Violations are worsening by the day in the face of India’s rapid industrialisation and infrastructural development and we do not have the machinery to monitor and respond to them all,” echoed Dr Muruganandam, a director at the ministry.

The NEPA would be a wholly new institutional body that would take over a number of roles currently held by the Ministry. Proposed responsibilities include the granting of environmental clearances, penalty enforcement, capacity building of state-enforcement agencies and communication around environmental regulations.

“If the Ministry of Environment and Forests is the umpire, NEPA would be the policeman”, added Ramesh. Indeed, the establishment of this new institution would redefine of the role of the MoEF itself, leaving it free to focus on policymaking and programme evaluation, while NEPA would focus on enforcement.

Yet some have questioned the idea. “Lack of capacity is not a reason to start a new institution. We need a better problem analysis before finalising NEPA’s framework,” said Chandra Bhushan, associate director at Indian think tank, Centre for Science and Environment.

Others said the problems with India’s environmental enforcement concerned regulation, rather than enforcement or implementation. “NEPA would be a non-solution as it inherits the legacy of poor regulatory design,” said Kanchi Kohli, environmental activist and member of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group.

Responding to these and other criticisms raised at the workshop, Ramesh cautioned that “the best can sometimes be the enemy of the good”. However he conceded that the meeting had highlighted a number of grey areas still to be addressed before the NEPA framework is finalised.

The United States is one country that already has an Environmental Protection Agency in place. Could there be lessons learnt for NEPA from their experiences in terms of function and form? Anjali Jaiswal, a Senior Attorney at US body the Natural Resources Defense Council believed the workshop to be an encouraging step towards improving environmental compliance in India. "We were honoured to be invited to present our perspectives on environmental compliance and enforcement based on our decades of experience in the US and elsewhere as Indian civil society, industry, and government work to find solutions,” she said.