Analysing India's Environmental Governance

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 40 No. 8, August 2020

By Vijay Ramesh, Pratik Rajan Gupte, Mridula Mary Paul

As governments scramble to rescue economies from the ongoing pandemic, the environmental cost is neglected. Analysing forest clearance data between 1994-2019 from the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), the authors highlight that the projects proposed shortly after Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) rules were amended (in 1995 and in 2006) sought for the clearance of ~ 200 per cent more forest land. Fearing similarly extensive clearances on the adoption of Draft EIA 2020, they call for the MoEFCC to withdraw the draft, and instead shore up environmental governance. 

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) are an imperative step to prevent loss of biological diversity, while taking into account the economic needs of a nation. In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, on March 12, 2020, days before a nationwide lockdown was imposed, the Government of India’s Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) published a revised draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, titled Draft EIA 2020. Environmentalists nationwide have voiced significant concerns with respect to this draft, citing considerable dilution of existing EIA regulations. 

The EIA Notification was initially issued in 1994, and further amended by ministerial notification in 2006. We accessed the MoEFCC forest clearance data between 1994 and 2019 to explore associations between notifications to the EIA and the forest area proposed/approved for clearance. This data was obtained from the PARIVESH portal for environmental clearance applications. Our analysis shows that projects applied for the clearance of a significantly larger proportion of forest area in years when or shortly after a new EIA notification was adopted. These years, 1995 and 2006, saw ~4,000 and ~3,000 proposed for clearance, which is nearly twice as much area proposed in other years. Further, the approval rate for projects did not differ significantly among years, and hence, 1995 and 2006 saw 814 per cent more forest area approved for clearance than other years (see figure below).

Forest area (in sq. km.) proposed for clearance over the years 1994--2019, coloured to show the fraction approved (blue), rejected (brown), and pending decision (grey). Projects applied for nearly twice as much area to be cleared in years when or shortly after a new EIA notification was adopted (1995 and 2006).

Data on the PARIVESH portal has been organised by the MoEFCC as applications prior to 2014 and post 2014. By applying this distinction to our analysis, between 1994 and 2013, 70 per cent of forest area proposed for clearances was approved. If this approval rate were applied to forest clearances pending since 2014, India could see an additional ~9,900 sq. km. of forest land cleared, about twice as much as in the preceding twenty years combined. Provisions in Draft EIA 2020 such as regularisation of environmental safeguards violations, or allowing projects to fence off forest land before the EIA process could cause further forest loss and degradation commensurate with those of 1995 and 2006. MoEFCC must withdraw Draft EIA 2020, and strengthen environmental governance if India is to meet national reforestation and international climate targets.



Vijay Ramesh is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University, New York, studying the long-term impacts of climate change and habitat loss on the birds of the Western Ghats. Pratik Rajan Gupte is a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, studying the causes and consequences of animal movement.  Mridula Mary Paul is a lawyer and environmental policy specialist, and works with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru as Senior Policy Analyst.

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