Earth Day 2022: India must invest in effective enforcement of environment laws

The world earth day
The findings by scientists at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm that link infection risk of Covid-19 and exposure to common pollutants should worry policymakers in India.

The Earth Day 2022: The 12th edition of the biennial Environment Performance Index (EPI Index 2020) released by the Yale University ranked India at 168th position among 180 countries in terms of environmental performance. In 2018, the country’s rank was 177 with a score of 30.57 out of 100. India scored 27.6 out of 100 in the 2020 index. Such poor ranking is despite the country making many advancements in environmental law, which have flowed from the provisions of the Constitution that require the state and the citizens to protect the environment.

The right to life, guaranteed in the Constitution, includes the right to a healthy environment. When India established the National Green Tribunals in 2010, it became the third country in the world after Australia and New Zealand to have a specialised forum for disposal of cases pertaining to environment. Yet, we are far behind in global rankings.

The Earth Day 2022 must be seen as an opportunity to address the shortcomings that stop it from performing better on key parameters. This year’s theme ‘Invest in Our Planet’ not only means aligning our individual actions to make the earth more sustainable, but also about analysing how well the governments at the centre and states have invested for ensuring effective enforcement of our environmental regulations.

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Inadequate budgeting

Many reports have repeatedly highlighted that while timely interventions by policymakers to develop environmental framework laws do take place, the lack of technical support and adequate funding have led to the establishment of weak environmental agencies. Usually, they are incapable of effectively enforcing most of the laws and regulations. For instance, in 2019, the parliamentary standing committee on science & technology, environment & forests on the ‘status of forests in India’ had spoken about the insufficient budget allocations for the National Afforestation Programme.

This has affected the achievement of the targets of afforestation in the last few years. Likewise, in 2020 the same parliamentary committee pointed out that the Green India Mission which is aimed at protecting, restoring and enhancing India’s diminishing forest cover and responding to climate change, has under-utilised funds. It also asked the government to introspect on the poor utilisation of funds allocated for strengthening scientific research in the area of environmental sciences.

The adverse effect of Covid-19 pandemic on the budgetary allocation only aggravates this situation. Major areas such as climate change, renewable energy and environmental protection failed to garner required share in the budget for 2022-23. The allocation to the Climate Change Action Plan was cut from Rs 400 million in 2020-21 to Rs 300 million in 2021-22 and 2022-23. This is despite the country launching a five-point agenda to target climate change following the Prime Minister’s pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2070 at the COP26 environment summit in Glasgow.

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Weak institutional capacity

Lack of access to information, poor coordination among various government departments, lack of data, weak institutional capacity and rampant corruption are other major concerns related to weak enforcement of environment legislations. According to recent reports, the pollution control boards in most states are plagued by staff shortage, and those employed are unable to deal with complexities in their current framework, besides having less accountability and motivation. Unfortunately, most of the staff have poor understanding of the pollution control policies they are in charge of enforcing.

The deepening environmental crisis in the country will continue to worsen if there is no significant support and investment to ensure effective enforcement of such legislations. Besides financial investments, enforcement officials should be trained to do their jobs, especially those who work in life-threatening situations. Such officials need to be equipped with weapons and effectively be trained to operate it responsibly. Despite the Supreme Court order to equip foresters with guns, the forest guards are poorly equipped to conduct patrols and often armed with mere sticks to counter hi-tech poachers, encroachers and mafia.

Earth Day 2022: Invest in environmental education

Simultaneously, the government needs to invest in environmental education among youth as heightened awareness about current environmental crisis and solutions can directly be related to better enforcement and compliance with the existing environmental laws. While the general awareness about environment and its protection is highest among the Indian population, it is vital to improve education, awareness, and human and institutional capacity on issues like climate change mitigation and sustainable development goals.

Through a study in 2021, CUTS has highlighted several concerns regarding the country’s preparedness to achieve the United Nations mandated Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). After reviewing initiatives in select states about SDG 12 (Sustainable Consumption and Production) and gauging the general awareness about SDGs, it was found that awareness raising initiatives are not comprehensive and effective. Not just the public even government officials in most states, except for those directly involved in reporting and data collection for NITI Aayog, were ignorant about SDGs.

On the Earth Day 2022, let the policymakers resolve to invest in ensuring effective enforcement of environmental laws by restoring the capacity of various enforcement agencies and ensuring more effective distribution and management of funds.

(This article is written by Pradeep S. Mehta, Secretary General, CUTS International, a global public policy research and consumer advocacy organisation. Inputs from George Cheriyan, Director and Simi T.B. Policy Analyst at CUTS Intranational.)

Secretary General, CUTS International at CUTS International | Website | + posts

Pradeep S Mehta is the Secretary General of CUTS International, a leading policy research and advocacy group. He is a featured columnist with several leading publications in the country.