A structure for environment governance: A perspective on proposed National Environmental Protection Agency – A commentary in Economic and Political Weekly
The objective of this note is to share the salient aspects of the discussion more widely with a view to furthering debate on environmental governance in the country.

This report on a round table held in November 2009 by a cross section of activists, policy analysts and academics deals with a move by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to restructure the environmental governance structure of the country through the proposed National Environmental Protection Agency.

Governing India’s environment in a way that strikes the right balance between sustainability, local livelihoods and developmental pressures has become an increasingly challenging task. Conflicts and controversies are emerging almost every week, what with projects reportedly being submitted for clearance at the rate of more than 150 per month.

The intent is for this discussion to crystallize into more specific policy recommendations and proposals in the near future. The wide-ranging discussion broadly covered three sets of issues.

First, what are the core problems in environmental governance in India today, and which of these problems does NEPA provide a solution for? Second, in addressing whichever problems it focuses on, what design issues need to be considered? Third, how will action or inaction on other problems limit or enhance the usefulness of NEPA?

The most important messages that emerged are that the problem to be solved needs to be better specified and matched with the institutional solution promoted, that the institutional solution needs more detailing and be part of a wider package of reforms, and that broader consultation on all of the above would be essential to accomplish this.

There are several major ambiguities in the specific NEPA proposal as it stands today, which, if not addressed, could lead to an inadequate or even cosmetic change. The core problems with environmental governance in India are several and are all embedded in the larger debate on environment, local livelihoods and development. Attempts to revamp the structures and procedures of environmental governance cannot be oblivious to this larger debate. They must clearly identify the problem in its multiple dimensions and put forward a somewhat comprehensive set of interlinked solutions.

At minimum, the following questions need to be addressed:

  • How do we diagnose the underlying problems of environmental governance, and what subset of these may be addressed through administrative solutions?
  • How will critical design issues of any regulatory process, including independence, selection, funding and capacity be addressed?
  • What other changes, in laws, regulations or practices, are necessary if the regulatory process is to be effective?

The setting up of an independent regulatory body covering environmental clearance, monitoring and enforcement could make a positive contribution to solving the problem if it addressed seriously these questions. The round-table participants strongly felt that more broad-based and informed discussions need to be held and a more radical, detailed and nuanced strategy needs to be put together by the MoEF to make this effort successful.

The authors of this paper are Sharachchandra Lele (ATREE), Navroz K Dubash (Centre for Policy Research) and Shantanu Dixit (Prayas).

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