By: Neeta Lal

India’s Narendra Modi government is flouting restrictions across a wide range of industries, ignoring pollution and despoliation in favor of economic development, and causing increasing concern among environmentalists, green groups say.

The business establishment, disenchanted with the previous Congress-led government for its attention to green restrictions in Asia’s third largest economy, helped Modi triumph in the electoral race. It is now keen that Modi focus on rebooting the economy as he had promised in the runup to elections, even if such progress occasionally comes at a cost to the country’s environment.

Modi hasn’t disappointed. A series of decisions and reforms undertaken by his business-friendly government has generated alarm among environmentalists. They fear that in the short time that it has been in power, the Bharatiya Janata Party has pushed through reforms and policies that are not only eroding India’s existing environmental laws but also destroying forests, a potentially ruinous move that will displace millions of poor, deplete forest cover and have serious ramifications for the country’s fragile environment. Data shows that 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are Indian.

In an early effort to assuage the green lobby’s fears, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said soon after taking over the Ministry of Forests, Environment and Climate Change (MoEFCC) that both growth and environment protection were compatible.  However, most of the minster’s actions have proved the contrary, environmentalists say.

Within 100 days of assuming office, the minster promised “fast clearances” to infrastructure projects and greenlighted 240 of 325 delayed projects in crucial sectors such as power, mining and coal. The projects are expected to bring in investment of up to US$32 billion to help revive the economy.

In one of his major decisions, the minister also exempted coal mines’ expansion projects from public hearings. It has also eschewed the need for consent from gram sabhas – local administrative units – for prospecting in forests. As a result, ministry officials are no longer required to inspect mining projects on fewer than 100 hectares of land

Similarly, mid-sized polluting industries can now operate within 5 km of national parks and sanctuaries — as opposed to the 10 km limit previously imposed by the Supreme Court. The ministry is also trying to clip the power of the National Green Tribunal formed in 2010 to expedite disposal of cases pertaining to environmental issues. The body was enacted under a constitutional provision that assures Indian citizens the right to a healthy environment.

The Modi government was also hauled up by the Supreme Court for tardy progress on setting up an independent environment authority. This is a high level committee to review various laws including the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.

“These important acts are the bedrock of environmental governance in the country and any changes are likely to have devastating impact on the country’s environment,” Greenpeace activist Sushma Sahi said. “The committee set up by the government has no subject experts or environment experts. How does it expect to come to an informed decision that will impact this entire country of 1.2 billion?”

The task “is huge and requires a much more detailed, comprehensive, real and effective consultative process than what is currently being done,” said advocacy and law group Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) in a written submission to the committee.

Worse, activists say, the government is increasingly dispensing with the formality of either debating major issues or even explaining many of its actions regarding the environment to the stakeholders including the local communities.

“The Ministry has also weakened clauses for public consultation with communities affected by mining and other infrastructure projects, and sought to dilute provisions mandating “free, prior and informed consent” of Adivasi (indigenous) communities, says the India chapter of Amnesty International.

The results of such short-sightedness will be apparent felt sooner rather than later, say analysts. Bureaucrats told Asia Sentinel on condition of anonymity that Modi’s much-vaunted `Make in India’ campaign, which promises  to leverage the country’s potential to become a global manufacturing hub, is creating considerable pressure on the administration. The campaign’s objective is to take India’s ranking from 134 to 50 in the World Bank’s ‘ease of doing business’ index.

In the name of economic progress, the rules and regulations that safeguard India’s environment, wildlife, forests, and indigenous rights are under attack said environmental lawyer Geeta Anand.

Prioritizing economic development over inclusive growth, say analysts, is a slippery slope. “Modi’s definition of development is purely to do with economic growth. Even when he was the chief minister of Gujarat, the state had economic growth and a high GDP but it lagged behind on many important social development parameters. Economic growth should be inclusive, one that also protects the environment and boosts human development rather than just the GDP numbers. The sooner the government realizes this, the better,” Anand said.

Neeta Lal is a senior journalist in New Delhi. Email her at neetalal@hotmail.com; follow her on twitter: @neeta_com