The Report of the High Level Committee to review various Acts administered by MoEF & CC (the report hereafter) has been submitted on Nov 18, 2014, though it has been made public only in early Dec 2014. The High Level Committee (HLC) headed by former cabinet secretary T. S. R. Subramanian faced a lot of well deserved criticism from its inception. While a comprehensive critique of the 106 page HLC report will take time, some critiques have already been published.
At the outset it should be mentioned that the HLC report is replete with recommendations for expediting environmental clearance, fast tracking projects and they show anti environment bias, as reflected in its use of “Single Window clearance”, “Fast track clearances”, “making business easier”, “utmost good faith” to name only a few phrases frequently used by HLC. However, this article is limited to commenting on the direct and indirect implications of the HLC report on climate change concerns.
While the mandate of the HLC report was “to review various Acts administered by MoEF & CC”, as the title page of the report says, the report rightly acknowledges that such a review would entail analysis of functioning of the environmental governance in India. And any review of environmental governance would be considered grossly inadequate in 21st century, when climate change is the biggest over arching environmental concern of our times that is also dictating the developmental priorities and options. As the world moves from deeply disappointing negotiations at Lima (Peru), symbolizing the continued let down of recent COPs (Conference of Parties) under United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to the next (21st) COP at Paris in 2015, it would be useful to see the HLC report through the climate change lenses.
HLC is climate blind Scanning through the report for the phrase “climate change”, one finds that it appears just once in the report outside the name of the commissioning ministry (Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change), in para 1.3 in preamble chapter, where it says: “We need to take heed of the very recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) call from Copenhagen that the earth is flirting with danger – the alarm flag has been hoisted.” That reference, one would have thought would lead HLC to give more importance to Climate Change, but that hope is belied when we read through the report. Even the word climate appears just one other time in the report (para 7.10.4 (e)) but that has nothing to do with climate change.
The other phrase generally used synonymously with climate change is global warming. This phrase appears in the report just once in preamble chapter, in para 1.7, which generates some hope: “Global warming, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and potential for conflict growing out of competition over dwindling natural resources are the current focus of humanity and should occupy the centre stage in policy formulation.” Indeed, Climate Change is “current focus of humanity and should occupy the centre stage in policy formulation”. But the HLC has nothing to do with that concern as the report does even care to mention that in any of its analysis or recommendations!
That shows that as far as direct reference to climate change is concerned, HLC has shown not referred to it in its analysis or recommendations. It would seem from this that may be HLC report is blind to climate change concerns.
But how can it be blamed for inviting a climate disaster? Let us see how.
Indian government is proud of its National Action Plan on Climate Change which is supposed to drive our developmental plans and priorities during the ongoing 12th Five year plan and beyond. There are several national missions, including National Mission for a Green India, National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem, National Solar Mission, National Water Mission, National Sustainable Agriculture, National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency and National Mission for Sustainable Habitat, all of which have far reaching implications for environment governance and climate change. The prime minister himself chairs the PM Council on Climate Change, which is a policy making and national monitoring body.
The 12th Five Year Plan specifically gives importance to climate change when it says (para 1.42): “It is known that India will be one of the countries most severely affected if global warming proceeds unchecked and as such appropriate domestic action is necessary. A National Action Plan for climate change has been evolved with eight component Missions. Implementation of these missions must be an integral part of the Twelfth Plan.”
But HLC takes no cognizance of any of these. Nor does it see the ecology, forests, rivers, biodiversity from climate change perspective and how vulnerable groups from climate change point of view would be affected by projects that would adversely impact the ecology, forests, rivers, biodiversity & other natural resources. In fact HLC completely ignores the fact that millions of Indians directly depend on these natural resources. HLC seems to have no clue about this.
Here it will be illuminating to quote what the HLC chairman said recently: “Villages in Gujarat could have got the water five years earlier had there been no andolan. Though some people lost their land in Madhya Pradesh (MP), the result is that half of MP and three-quarters of Gujarat today has access to water. So, there is some cost attached to everything. Some larger force will have to look at it. Ultimately, it is all about striking a balance. We are suggesting that the government should not go after development blindly but also not let people of one village blackmail it by shouting “my right, my right”. Mr Subramanian here is clearly referring to Narmada Bachao Andolan agitation against the Sardar Sarovar Dam on Narmada River. This is not only grossly ill informed opinion, it shows his shocking anti people and anti people’s movement bias.
The HLC was expected to consider populations that are vulnerable due to climate change and also affected by destruction of environment. In fact the entire HLC report has nothing to do with people or populations, leave aside identifying the vulnerable populations and giving affected people any effective say in environmental decision making process. Absence of such role for people is one of the key reasons for current environmental problems in India, as is apparent in any of the environmental and natural resources conflict. But HLC analysis not only ignores this lacuna, HLC recommendations are for further reducing say for the people by suggesting that public consultations can be done away with in most projects.
Let us see some further direct implications of HLC recommendations with respect to climate change. HLC is essentially dealing with forests (chapter 5), wildlife (chapter 6), biodiversity (chapters 5, 6 & 7), environmental governance (chapter 7). It makes a large number of recommendations on these issues and all of these have implications for climate change and how the populations vulnerable to climate change would become further vulnerable when these resources are taken away from them. But here again HLC sees no need to mention climate change. For example, forests are a major storehouse of carbon and HLC recommendations are going to lead to massive deforestations, thus increasing the release of stored carbon and reducing the carbon absorption, besides taking away the adaptation capacity of the forest dependent communities, but HLC finds no merit or reason to mention that. Even in section 7.9.2 where HLC mentions the kind of expertise NEMA (National Environmental Management Authority), there is no mention of climate change.
It is in this context that we need to view the HLC recommendations for faster and single window clearances with advocacy for utmost faith in the project developers, for relaxing the environmental governance on several counts, for fast track clearances for mining, power, line projects and large number of other projects, for recommending relaxation of public consultation process in most of the projects, for insulating the officials and the ministers (the executive) from environmental governance, for delaying the legal challenge process to clearances and also for debarring the legal challenge on merit. These HLC recommendations are all going to help relax the environmental governance and hence invite greater environmental disaster and by implication, climate disaster for India.
The claim of HLC chairman that HLC had tried “to optimize the efforts to balance developmental imperatives causing least possible damage to environment” is clearly unfounded. The remarks of the Union Environment Minister Prakash Javdekar, while accepting the report from HLC, that “the Report was a historic achievement that would strengthen processes to balance developmental commitments and environment protection. The recommendations of the Report would enhance Ministry’s efforts to avoid undue delays and ensure transparency in clearances and implementation of projects” is deeply disappointing and seems to begin an era where environmental conflicts will only increase and deepen.
It is thus clear that HLC report will invite greater climate disaster for India, particularly for those who are poor and already vulnerable to climate change implications. The HLC report should be rejected for this reason alone, besides its other acts of omissions and commissions.
Himanshu Thakkar (email@example.com), SANDRP
 For example, see: http://shripadmanthan.blogspot.in/2014/12/full-report-of-moefs-committee-to.html and Executive’s Environmental Dilemmas: Unpacking a Committee’s Report by Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli in Economic & Political Weekly, Dec 13, 2014, among others
 For full interview, see: http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/my-report-not-industry-report-t-s-r-subramanian