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Low public participation in environment policymaking

In the last two months, the government has publicised three documents
that can shape the environment and forest governance in India.
Interested citizens have been given a few days to read and respond to a
draft forest policy, amendments to the 2011 Coastal Regulation Zone
(CRZ) notification and the draft National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) put
out by the Environment Ministry. There is much to be said about the
content of these documents. However, the overlapping time frame and the
manner in which these participatory processes have been set up has made
it very challenging and even counterproductive to engage in these

A policy, a law, and a programme 

draft forest policy was made available on the ministry’s website in
mid-March. The policy is focused on raising commercial plantations. It
undermines two major gains of the last few decades; understanding
forests as a complex ecological system, beyond their timber value and
recognition to community-led conservation through new legislation. The
timeline to receive comments was one month, starting March 14.

The draft amendments to the 2011 CRZ notification are presently open
for comments. The proposed changes encourage real estate, tourism and
other infrastructure development on the coast. These could significantly
alter the existing land use on the coast, especially common use areas
like fishing or grazing. The Ministry generated these amendments through
discussions with expert committees and state governments.

The third document is the NCAP that has been drafted in response to
widespread demand by citizens for long-term action to reduce air
pollution. The government has put out its two-year vision in this
proposal. There are several long-term scientific studies and
technological models proposed, with a few steps as targeted measures to
combat the high levels of pollution.

Facile participation

Principle 10 of the
1992 Rio declaration acknowledged, “environmental issues are best
handled with participation of all citizens concerned, at the relevant
level.” But this participation has to be enabled and facilitated through
appropriate access to information and adequate deliberation by
signatory governments. The approach of the current Environment Ministry
does none of the above.

The Ministry has put out these three documents, seeking written
comments within the proposed tight timeframe. However, these documents
are fully formed drafts that are based on a number of assumptions and
make very specific suggestions on how to move forward. Such documents
are not open-ended and seem already invested with ministerial backing.
This makes it difficult to critique the fundamental premise in them. It
also pushes citizens into acknowledging these as ‘a good start’, ‘a
first step’ in the interest of enabling a dialogue. Instead,
deliberative discussions on the main issues, gaps or problems would
allow greater public engagement and generate a wider set of perspectives
that would be otherwise unavailable to the government. For example, the
2011 CRZ notification was drafted, following a series of public
meetings to discuss various aspects of coastal governance. These were
organised in 2009-10 by the government, in collaboration with an NGO.

Public participation based on deliberation requires long and careful
discussions before decisions are taken. But the advantage of these
processes is that there is greater acceptability of the final outcomes.
The Environment Ministry can still consider building into its approach,
wide public consultations on these key governance issues. At present,
the process of review is extremely short and there are no options, but
to communicate through written responses. The draft forest policy and
the draft NCAP are open to comments for 30 days and the CRZ amendments
have a 60-day review.

Participatory processes also involve accountability of those who
have engaged in it. The Ministry’s review mechanisms are set up as a
one-way street. The call for public comments in the present form creates
an illusion that anyone with access to these documents can become a
part of reforming environment law and policy. But there is no obligation
on the part of the government to tell citizens how their comments were
dealt with. This has a negative effect on public participation itself in
the long run as fewer and fewer citizens find such processes a
worthwhile exercise.

Social legitimacy

Citizens are pushing the
limits of the space available to them by engaging parliamentary
committees, organising public debates and staging public protests to
demand wider deliberation before these documents can be finalised. If
the government limits participation to the idea of time-bound written
comments, it may be able to meet the mandatory, but narrow legal
standards of participation. But its decisions run the danger of lacking
social legitimacy.

Public participation is a sign of a healthy democracy. It means
going beyond the events of elections to genuinely collaborate on
policymaking and governance.

The authors are with the CPR Namati Environment Justice Programme. Views expressed are personal.


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Posted on : May 16, 2018