The government-appointed High Level Committee (HLC) to review environmental laws, while proposing a near complete overhaul of the regulatory system, has sounded a note of caution on genetically modified (GM) food crops.
In a report submitted recently on its review of six laws, the HLC headed by former Cabinet Secretary T.S.R. Subramanian, said the potential consequences of mindless use of science and technology could possibly be illustrated by referring to the potential for medium/ long-term adverse affects through unprepared introduction of GM food crops. While other Ministries naturally would aggressively push for early field trials and induction, the HLC said the role of the Environment Ministry may have to be one of being a Devil’s Advocate to advise due caution. It said that Europe does not permit field trials, and that the average Indian farm is of very small size (which could lead to severe adverse impact on biodiversity through gene-flow) and also noted that there are no independent expert agencies in the country, and perhaps the Ministry of Environment may ask for greater assurance in respect of potential adverse effects in the medium and long run. The HLC takes this aspect of assurance and good faith further in its new proposed law, the Environment Laws (Management) Act (ELMA). The new law prescribes new offences, as also for establishing special environment courts presided over by a session’s judge and higher penalties.
The proposed new law will have an overriding effect on all other relevant laws. However, the proposed legislation prescribes that the application for environmental clearances expects the applicant to be honest and truthful — the concept of ‘utmost good faith’ is statutorily introduced, and the consequences of breach are also set out.
The Committee which was criticized for inadequate consultation and its brief time frame of three months, however, felt that most pending issues were addressed constructively, and equally a roadmap has been suggested for continuous monitoring of the legal, legislative and management framework in this field. It noted that among the most important gaps in the present regime, the issue of enforcement of conditions of approval remains nearly totally unattended and needs to be addressed effectively. It called for the setting up of a new All India Service called the Indian Environment Service. The present monitoring regime is heavily dependent on field verification through ‘inspectors’. It also noted that the cause of environment preservation is not adequately met by the present monitoring methods.
The HLC has said forest areas with 70 per cent or more canopy cover and protected areas should be notified as ‘no go’ areas and suggested a slew of other measures for forest protection. However, it said that where there are considerations of national interest and issues relating to safeguarding the territorial integrity of the country, activities may be permitted in such areas subject to the prior and specific approval of the Union Cabinet.
In keeping with the Centre’s desire to dilute the Forest Rights act (FRA), the HLC has said that for linear projects, it is recommended that FRA needs amendment to consider removal of the condition of Gram Sabha approval. However, there is already an order from the Eenvironment Ministry to this effect. It said that forest and environmental clearances should time bound and streamlined.
While environmentalists have fought for increased regulation in wildlife areas during festivals, the HLC says India has a varied and glorious cultural tradition. While there are many national festivals, there are also localised festivals which are of great local importance in different States. Nature and animal worship has been part of the national culture. Thus, for example Nag Panchami in many States is celebrated and snakes worshipped during five days in Shravan month, as a “thousands years-old’ tradition. I