Draft New Environment Policy

INDIA has seen so many new policies being announced on this or that subject, but these policies have most often not being taken seriously by the government and the agencies charged with implementing them, and executive action on the ground has been guided more by interest groups than by policy guidelines. Many Draft Policy Documents have also been released for public scrutiny and comment, but there has been little or no transparency regarding this process, and the final Policy Document barely reflects any re-thinking. So one may be pardoned a degree of cynicism at yet another major Policy announcement, in this case a new National Environment Policy (NEP) 2004, a Draft having recently been released.

Nevertheless, since a Draft Policy has been circulated, some comment is imperative if for no other reason than to try and ward off worst-case scenarios. While it would not be possible, given limitations of space, to present a comprehensive critique of NEP 2004, this article attempts to examine the major assumptions, concepts and policy prescriptions put forward in the Draft Policy.

At the outset, it must be said that it is surprising that the Draft NEP has been released so soon after the UPA government took office since considerable discussion and a also a fairly extended drafting process must have gone into the NEP. Has the Draft NEP gone through any policy-level discussions within the current set-up at the level of government, UPA or the National Advisory Council overseeing implementation of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) adopted by the UPA allies and the Left parties? The CMP has a distinctive developmental thrust, with emphasis on the interests of the poor and the underprivileged, demarcating it from the policy framework of the erstwhile NDA government. But this emphasis is scarcely visible in Draft NEP 2004.


Of course, like all other policy documents, NEP 2004 too has been drafted with due cleverness.  Some sections could thus take comfort from statements of principle such as that “human beings are at the centre of sustainable development concerns” whereas others may hail the recommendation to “expand Protected Areas” network of the country” with “access restrictions”! In effect, NEP has several pronouncements on both sides of any issue, leaving it open to interpretation, amenable to implementation serving interests of one section while providing excuses to another! Such fairly obvious internal contradictions are unfortunately far too common in so-called “Policy” documents which therefore end up being nothing of the kind.

However, this does not imply that NEP has no particular thrust or orientation. In fact, two main threads of argument run through the document representing two broad tendencies in dealing with environmental issues and both may be regarded as “fundamentalist” tendencies each in its own way. The first is an “eco-fundamentalist” position, which essentially puts preservation of the environmental status quo above all else and earnestly believes this is best done by insulating it from human activity. The second is an “economic fundamentalist” position which holds that ascribing economic values to environmental resources and deploying appropriate fiscal, pricing or other mechanisms would control over-use of these resources leading to environmental degradation. In NEP, the former is a recurrent theme despite many ifs and buts, while the latter is a dominant focus behind which the hand of special interests can be discerned in many places.

Common to both these strands is a fundamentally flawed understanding of the causes of environmental degradation and there is little wonder that, overlooking the implications of the several correct formulations made NEP, its recommendations are basically skewed.

NEP’s categorisation of “proximate” and “underlying” causative factors often puts the cart before the horse and frequently forgets the rider altogether! For instance, it is stated that “the proximate drivers of environmental degradation are population growth, technology and consumption choices, and poverty, leading to… [harmful] development activities such as intensive agriculture, polluting industry and unplanned urbanisation” whereas the actual damage is a result of “deeper causal linkages, in particular institutional failures…, policies which provide disincentives for environmental conservation…, market failures… and governance constraints.”  Completely missing in this chain of causation are rapacious profiteers, corrupt officials and politicians who connive at loot of natural resources, and ruling classes who dispossess local environment-dependent communities in favour of external privileged classes. To gloss over these basic structural issues is not simply naivety but sophistry.


It is indeed strange that while the industrialists, merchants and strip-farmers are not even named or are hidden under euphemisms, the poor are mentioned frequently and even blamed, although accompanied with expressions of sympathy for their helplessness. Poverty leading to unplanned urbanisation is one of the most oft-repeated myths of modern India, re-stated in NEP, as if everything in our cities and metros were perfectly planned otherwise. Illegal colonies of the super-rich, unplanned commercial property development, an unholy nexus between real estate speculators, builders, officials, politicians and crooks, all straining urban habitats beyond their carrying capacity are conveniently forgotten while the poor are blamed for “unplanned urbanisation” even as their entitlements are simply ignored.

“Poverty itself can accentuate environmental degradation”, says NEP, referring to stresses on irrigation water, fuel-wood, fish and non-timber forest produce. More myths. No honest study has ever shown any meaningful correlation between degradation of any of the above environmental resources and their use by the local poor, and certainly not in comparison with the resource-guzzling activities of the expropriating classes.

Air pollution is ascribed to “the use of fossil energy and other industrial processes, and some consumption activities” which, we learn from a footnote, includes things called cars! The analysis then shifts to inefficient domestic cookstoves and “diversion” of biomass from fertiliser application to fuel (as if use of dung-cakes as domestic fuel is a recent phenomenon precipitated by inappropriate subsidies to chemical fertilisers!), leading NEP to advocate addressing of these “deeper causes” through “policies and programmes for redressing women’s status”. Once again, while solutions to major environmental degradation by corporates and industrial products for elite classes are cast in generalities such as “strengthening the monitoring and enforcement of emission standards”, concrete action is suggested for the rural poor: improved wood-burning stoves, solar cookers and energy plantations. Regulate fossil fuel use in urban-industrial sectors, deny it to rural-agricultural sectors.

A strange policy document indeed which waxes eloquent on per-capita equity in emissions between developed and developing countries, but advocates just the opposite within India, between town and country, between rich and poor.

As one of its operational principles, NEP 2004 defines and prioritises what it terms “Incomparable entities” i.e. “unique historical monuments such as the Taj Mahal; charismatic species such as the Tiger; or unique landscapes such as the Valley of Flowers” and prescribes that, for such entities, “conventional economic cost-benefit calculus would not… apply” unlike for most other resources discussed. One may have little argument with the specific examples cited but, as NEP expands on the theme, the clearer its own vision gets.

Discussing Wildlife Conservation, NEP highlights the “incomparable values” of Protected Areas (PA). Even while acknowledging that “delineation of and restricting access to PAs… has led to man-animal conflicts”, “encroachment of human settlements on these areas” is identified as one of the problems even though in numerous such cases such as in the Rajaji National Park or the Greater Himalayan Nature Park in HP, PAs have been notified and delineated around pre-existing settlements, often stretching back many generations if not centuries, with the local people then externed, often forcibly, and otherwise denied access, gravely threatening their livelihoods and their very survival which, surely, ought also to be regarded as “incomparable values”.

Yet NEP recommends that the PA network of the country be expanded “to all bio-geographic zones of the country” and even that the area within each zone should increase”. Eco-development programmes may be undertaken “in fringe areas of PAs… owing to access restrictions”, in other words the policy of externment of human beings will be continued if not intensified, despite rhetoric about involving local communities.

The list of “Incomparable entities” then keeps expanding to include natural heritage sites, bio-diversity hot-spots, particular unique wetlands, particular unique mountainscapes, various “environmentally sensitive zones” and so on. Going by past experience and most likely future trends, designation of such entities would be done by a few “experts”, with some token “participatory decision-making” and all the consequences of the implementation would then be borne by local communities and huge social costs, which of course should not even be calculated since “incomparable values” are involved, by the nation as a whole.

All these recommendations are, of course, accompanied by supposedly reassuring caveats such as “without impeding legitimate socio-economic development of these areas”, “while providing alternative livelihoods… to local communities who may be affected thereby” and, for displaced people, “to restore as nearly as may be feasible the lost environmental services” of the natural resources on which they had depended. In practice, the fate of displaced persons is clear from the Narmada Valley where, despite repeated assurances and monitoring of the high-profile case by the highest Court, neither relief nor rehabilitation has taken place as required before their displacement. NEP threatens to open the floodgates to a whole new generation of refugees from sanctuaries declared as “incomparable entities” by a few self-designated environmental czars.


NEP recommends that implementation takes place through a combination of instruments based on fiats and incentives. Having looked at some of the former, let us turn to a few examples of the latter.

The main argument in NEP is unexceptionable, that “costs associated with the degradation and depletion of natural resources be incorporated into the decisions of economic actors… to reverse the tendency to treat these resources as ‘free goods’”. NEP therefore recommends that economic instruments including the fiscal regime be used to build a set of incentives and disincentives which would regulate the use of environmental resources and thereby conserve them.

However, NEP errs in placing too much reliance on such economic tools. On the one hand, it underplays the role to be played by regulatory legislation, monitoring and enforcement, using the excuse of poor institutional capacities. On the other hand, NEP ignores the harsh reality of the manipulation of such economic and fiscal instruments by special-interest groups whose hand can be seen even in NEP!

NEP ascribes land degradation to “underlying causes” such as, among other things, implicit and explicit subsidies for water, power, fertiliser and pesticides and absence of incentives for afforestation. Similarly, degradation of rivers are attributed to tariff policies for water use for irrigation and industry and, states NEP, the “direct causes of groundwater depletion have their origin in pricing policies for electricity and diesel”.

It can be nobody’s case that tariffs or pricing do not impact on usage patterns but there are other contributory factors too and, in some instances, these play a larger role. Increased taxation and higher price levels have neither reduced consumption of petrol and diesel nor the demand for personal transport vehicles. Further, the NEP once again singles out the most vulnerable section, the farmer, as a focus of analysis and action. In the case of groundwater extraction by farmers, the “marginal cost of extraction”, largely cost of electricity or diesel, is hardly the deciding factor whereas the farmer is prepared to incur huge capital costs (which NEP dismisses as of no consequence “being sunk costs [which]… do not count in the marginal cost of water!) to get whatever meager returns he does. Pricing of water and other agricultural inputs cannot be seen in isolation from the general economy and the adverse terms of trade faced by the agricultural sector.

And in all the discussion about groundwater there is no mention in NEP’s analysis or recommendations of the huge exploitation beyond recharge capacity by unplanned even illegal urban real estate developers, corporate and commercial establishments such as cola companies and luxury hotels, bottled water companies and private urban water supply services, for none of whom the marginal cost of extraction means anything.

Some explanation for such strange thinking certainly lies in some special-interest groups who appear to have been involved in drafting the NEP. But there is yet another common thread uniting all these and running through the NEP. One has by now got used to IMF-World Bank jargon of “stakeholders” and “public-private partnerships”, but a new stakeholder in the environment, “investors”, whom one has not encountered earlier, appears in NEP frequently. Private-public partnership and investors figure in numerous quite novel areas such as monitoring and enforcement (with a caveat about “safeguards against possible conflict of interests” which are obvious when the fox is asked to guard the hen-house!). Not so novel are resurrections of earlier much reviled suggestions of involving corporates and “investors” in reclamation of wastelands and degraded forest lands, and in increasing tree cover through commercial tree plantations (misnamed “social forestry” to help it masquerade as increased forest cover whereas everybody, especially eco-fundamentalists, knows that a bunch of trees does not make a forest).

With such a lot expected from “investors”, it is no wonder that NEP suggests “re-visiting” the Coastal Zone Regulations Act which the business community has long lobbied against, exempting “investors” from the restrictions of access imposed on other human beings in protected areas in order to promote eco-tourism, and implementing a “polluter pays” principle “with due regard to public interest and without distorting international trade and investment” i.e. without annoying “investors”.


There will no doubt be plenty of discussions in coming weeks on the NEP in different fora, and comments from numerous concerned organisations and individuals. But will there actually be a genuine effort on the part of government to seek out and incorporate informed opinion? Will the nation be able to see through the usually opaque decision-making processes and see a policy emerging takes into account the concerns of the mostly voiceless common people who bear the brunt of the impact of any such policies and especially ones dealing with the environment? The outcome will reveal whether the UPA government actually turns over a new leaf in such matters or whether it will be business as usual, with backdoor lobbying by and tacit understandings with interest groups dominating the process and clever phraseology capable of diverse interpretations substituting for clear enforceable guidelines, and vague promises substituting for entitlements.