Ever since coming into office, the Narendra Modi government has applied considerable energy to the problem of India's environmental regulation. Tardy and arbitrary application of the laws and the regulations had caused considerable damage to India's economic growth in the past years, as well as to its business climate and international reputation. Restoring environmental regulation to good health should indeed have been a priority for the new government. Consider the many mistakes of the previous, the United Progressive Alliance - in which it first delayed and then permitted the go-ahead of the Posco steel plant in Odisha, for example, the largest single piece of foreign direct investment in India. The Vedanta problem, dealing with bauxite mining in Niyamgiri, led to even more confusion, with the environment ministry's actions following what, to outsiders, looked like a script written by Congress Vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who spoke in the area about how he was the local tribals' voice in Delhi.
However, it is to be feared that the Modi government is not going about environmental regulation properly. In a series of recent actions, it has weakened the various bodies meant to serve as watchdogs for the laws. And now, it has been reported in this newspaper that the government is, at the highest level, considering how to abolish the requirement that local village councils, or gram sabhas, consent to the destruction of neighbourhood forests for various purposes. This was a key initiative of the Forest Rights Act, or the FRA, brought in by the previous government in 2006. There are many reasons why the FRA may need a relook. Indeed the very idea of community rights could be considered to be fundamentally illiberal, a constitutional slippery slope. The FRA has certainly survived legal scrutiny. But the government, reportedly, intends to end the requirement without amending the law, which is not the right way to go about it. Such a major change should be discussed by Parliament, and receive its approval. It is not in the domain of executive action alone.
It is true that not all experience with the village-council-consent requirement has been wholly positive. On some occasions, non-governmental organisations have been able to make the case against changing land use of the forest, while the company that might benefit has been denied the same ability. There are also reasonable questions about the quality of representation that village councils provide, and whether they will replicate existing, local power structures that are grossly unequal. However, the requirement for local consent was an important step towards empowering some of India's poorest and least politically powerful people. Stepping back is not just the wrong thing to do - it is also dangerous. The Indian state has brought left-wing extremism under relative control partially because of attempts like this to bring marginalised individuals into the mainstream of decision-making. Greater decentralisation is what is needed to make democracy more effective and supercharge growth, not the resumption of bureaucratic control by civil servants in ministries in New Delhi. Instead of trying to avoid regulations, the government should work on implementing them better - or changing them. This sustained search for short cuts will not do India any good.