Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an aggressive pitch to state environment ministers on Monday morning, saying development and environment can co-exist.
"Some people feel environment and development are on opposite sides. This is wrong. Both can co-exist", he said, and added, "There should be some dos and don'ts. The other thing is there is a lot of misinformation."
Of all the issues that will be discussed, the High Level Committee report under TSR Subramaniam has got the most attention. The report makes several recommendations to amend existing greens laws to make them more relevant to 'current times', but many are controversial.
The focus is on 'ease of business' as it proposes a new "umbrella" law that will replace existing laws like Environment Protection Act, Indian Forest Act and the Wildlife Act. It also suggests a single window clearance system to shorten project approval time, giving de facto approvals even before the impact can be fully studied. Controversially, it seeks to limit the mandate of the national green tribunal restricting it to a mere administrative body with no judicial power.
It proposes to dilute the mandatory public hearings by exempting a wide range of projects from its ambit. The report also introduces the concept of 'utmost good faith' for project proponents so that what they promise in their project report is taken as true and punishment for violations are hardly a deterrent. There are also changes suggested to afforestation norms to allow private sector to use government forest land.
"Except for Vedanta and Nirma not a single project clearance has been held back by the environment ministry in the last five years, so saying it a roadblock ministry is completely untrue. If these recommendations go through, we will lose whatever little protection we have had for our environment so far. Many of these recommendations are unconstitutional," well-known environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta told NDTV.
Uttarakhand Environment Minister Harak Singh Rawat said, "These laws were made over decades. We haven't got enough time to review them. We feel the power of states will reduce through these."
Bihar's Environment Minister Prashant Shahi said, "India is such a diverse country, we cannot have a one-size-fits-all. They say in their speeches that federalism must be protected and respected. Let's see if they follow it in spirit."
The government has already prepared some changes that can be brought as early as the second session of Parliament that reconvenes on April 20.