The committee, headed by former Cabinet secretary T S R Subramanian, on environment and forests has recommended that the plethora of existing statutes and institutions governing the interrelated fields of environment and forests be merged into a single umbrella law. It has further suggested that an empowered regulatory authority should enforce the new law. The proposed comprehensive legislation - the Environment (Management) Act - should incorporate the relevant provisions of current environment, forests and wildlife related laws, including those on air and water pollution. The new 15-member National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and equivalent state environment management authorities (SEMA), on the other hand, are supposed to subsume the existing central and state pollution control boards and the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee on environment and pollution, among other existing institutions. The forest rights Act is also sought to be amended to dilute the consent powers of the local communities that often stall mining and other projects.
The spirit behind many of these suggestions moves in the correct direction. Currently, India suffers under a double burden: there are too many environment-related laws, and they are too poorly enforced. They overlap and they contradict each other; they turn even the best of companies into criminals, if read by an overly stringent inspector. When "development" becomes a priority, these overly stringent regulations are then ignored, at great cost to the environment. The only answer is the one the committee suggests - a new, comprehensive piece of legislation, which is implementable and simple. The committee has sought a balance between competing claims: project clearances should be simpler, but the "no-go" doctrine for guarding dense and biodiversity-rich forests should be revived. Importantly, it says companies should be allowed to self-certify their compliance with forest norms, doing away with time-consuming verification procedures. However, random reviews and heavy punitive action have been envisaged to deter misreporting.
Another serious lacuna the Subramanian committee has sought to address is the lack of a proper definition of "forests". The new definition restricts forests to only those areas that have been notified under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, in the government records. Any plantation raised on private land has been excluded from this definition. Meanwhile, different states define forest land differently, leading to much confusion. Besides, it will encourage tree plantations on private and agricultural lands that are often left vacant now on the fear that such lands would not be allowed to be reclaimed for any other purpose subsequently. The revived no-go concept, too, is a well-defined and diluted version of its original form. The protected zone has been confined to reserve forests, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks besides the dense forests with over 70 per cent tree canopy. Such areas, going by the Forest Survey of India records, account only for around 12 per cent of the country's total forest cover. Any development initiative in these areas will require the Union Cabinet's approval.
Indeed many of the Subramanian panel's propositions, including the one on the creation of the NEMA, are not entirely new. But these have, in the past, been either turned down because the government - more so the central and state forest departments - did not want to cede authority or they have remained under consideration without making much headway. Now that these have come as part of a comprehensive package from a high-level committee, the government should actually act on them. Cutting down multiple authorities and laws will ensure faster clearances for industry, infrastructure, power and mining projects. And clearer laws mean more transparent implementation, which means the environment is better protected, too.