With the BJP-led NDA government winning a huge mandate to rule the country for the next five years, it’s a good time to take stock of their existing and expected environmental policies, including on climate change. Irrespective of where one stands on the political divide, this is one policy area that is critical for the nation’s very survival, requiring bipartisan support and commitment—and hence should be free from ideological underpinnings.

However, as the manifestoes revealed, there are differences in approach and strategy for the two national parties. This was covered in detail in this CB feature.

Past policies

Here we take a look at the BJP government’s key environmental policies from 2014–19.

  • Air pollution: In 2015, the National Air Quality index was launched by the government starting with 10 cities. Earlier this year, the much-delayed National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) was finally unveiled. The five-year plan aims to reduce air pollution in 102 cities by up to 30 per cent from 2017 levels. It includes provisions to improve air pollution-monitoring systems across the country as well as awareness and capacity-building activities. Specific action plans are being formulated for 102 identified cities to implement mitigation actions. Improving access to, and distribution of, LPG connection among the rural poor (Ujjwala scheme) has been a major step towards cutting down household air pollution and improving health.

In terms of awareness building, in 2018, the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEFCC) launched a joint campaign with the Delhi Government, NDMC, CPCB and other municipal agencies for clean air in Delhi to sensitise ground-level functionaries and the public on environmental protection. The government has also created infrastructure for industrial pollution control including cleaner production processes and setting up of common pollution-control facilities. Besides, it has approved the promotion of agricultural mechanization for in-situ management of crop residue in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi NCT for 2018-20, with an outlay of Rs 1,151.8 crore. Interestingly, by the end of 2018 funds were released to all states except Delhi.

While in December 2015 the government introduced new emission norms for thermal power plants to cut down on toxic particulate-matter emissions, two years later the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) issued letters to more than 400 thermal power plants allowing them to continue releasing pollutants for up to five more years.

  • Water pollution: The implementation of the National River Conservation Plan, the programme for pollution abatement in identified stretches of rivers and conservation activities, was further expanded to include interception and diversion of raw sewage, construction of sewerage systems and treatment plants, low-cost sanitation facilities, and awareness campaigns.

For conservation of lakes and wetlands, the National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Eco-systems (NPCA) aims to conserve and restore lakes and wetlands to achieve desired water quality and protect biodiversity and local ecosystems. For instance, wastewater is intercepted, diverted and treated before entering into the lake. During the NDA government’s last outing in power, Namami Gange received a lot of attention, not just from the media but also the government. You can read more about it here.

Technology is being leveraged to monitor the quality of identified rivers and streams. Examples include the Water Resources Information System (WRIS) database developed by the Central Water Commission along with the Indian Space Research Organisation, and the monitoring being done by CPCB in association with the state pollution control boards.

For thermal power plants, the government has made it mandatory for all plants within a 50 km radius from a sewage treatment plant (STP) or city limits to use treated wastewater (TWW).

  • Climate change: While the National Adaptation Fund on Climate Change (NAFCC) is meant to do exactly that (help prepare for climate-change effects), sanctioning and releasing of the amount has been slow and sporadic at best. In 2018–19, a total amount of Rs 42.16 crore was released to 7 ongoing projects to support adaptation activities in 7 states. To date, 27 projects have been approved with a total cost of Rs 673.63 crore, of which Rs 369 has been sanctioned.

A similar funding scheme is the Climate Change Action Programme (CCAP) for capacity building, but here also only paltry amounts have been released to date. The amount collected from the coal cess is supposed to be redirected to the National Clean Energy Fund (NCEF), which is used for clean energy and environmental projects. It is also used to fund schemes such as the green energy corridor for the transmission sector, the Namami Gange project, Green India Mission and National Solar Mission. However, a CAG audit report found that of a total Rs 53,967 crore collected from 2010–11 to 2016–17, only 28.69 per cent was transferred to the NCEF in the public account. The Centre’s move to divert a significant portion of this fund to compensate states for their revenue loss post GST implementation was met with rebuke from the CAG as well as a parliamentary panel.

In terms of renewable energy, India’s Paris Agreement targets are to create 175 GW of renewable-energy capacity by 2022, of which 76.87 GW had been achieved till February 2019. By 2030, renewable sources should contribute at least 40 per cent of India’s energy mix. India is also leading the International Solar Alliance (ISA) with France and has pledged to spend $21 million from 2016 to 2021 on this, including setting up of the headquarters in Gurugram. Exact details are amiss though.

  • Waste management: Having emerged as one of the priorities of this government, amendments were made to several waste-management rules (such as Municipal Solid Wastes Rules, Plastic Waste Management Rules, Hazardous Wastes Rules, Bio-Medical Waste Rules, and E-Waste Rules). Ban on burning of leaves, biomass and municipal solid waste was implemented. Directions were issued under the country’s key environmental laws such as Section 18 (1) (b) of Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, to clamp down on pollution and violators. For example, in 2016, a notification was issued that industrial units generating unauthorised hazardous waste were to be closed under Section 5 of Environment (Protection) Act 1986. Aside from this, the flagship Swachh Bharat Abhiyan received massive funding, a new tax, publicity, and full backing by the powers that be.
  • Biodiversity and forest conservation: Schemes like the National Action Plan of the Central Asian Flyway had been launched by the MoEFCC to manage migratory birds, wetlands, and the surrounding ecosystem. On conservation of forests and wildlife, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016, was enacted to help the Centre and state governments utilise the Rs 6,000 crore-plus per-annum funds in a planned and efficient manner. The money was to be used to restock and improve quality of degraded forests, constituting more than 40 per cent of the total forest cover in the country. The Act was also designed to create more than 15 crore man-days of direct employment.

The two major afforestation schemes being implemented are the National Afforestation Programme (NAP) and the National Mission for a Green India, or Green India Mission (GIM). The former is for the afforestation of degraded forest lands and GIM is to improve the quality of forest cover and increase the same. GIM is a critical part of one of India’s Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs (towards the Paris Agreement) to sequester an additional 2.5 to 3.0 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in the forestry sector by the year 2030. Last year, the MoEFCC stated that Rs 160 crore had been earmarked for GIM, an increase of 48.8 per cent over the previous allocation.

MoEFCC has also drawn out an initiative on climate-change issues that includes planting 1,000 crore saplings from 2021 to 2030. This will be implemented in various parts of the country under programmes like CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority), Green India Mission, and National Afforestation Programme.

  • Skilling: The MoEFCC had launched the Green Skill Development Programme (GSDP) in June 2017 on a pilot basis and subsequently scaled it to a pan-India level, to enable young people to be skilled and employed in this field. More than 30 skilling programmes are being conducted in 2018–19, covering fields such as pollution monitoring, waste management, forest management, and water budgeting and auditing. From August 2018 till the end of the same year, 944 candidates had successfully completed the courses. As per the government’s estimate, 80,000 people will be trained in various skilling courses during 2018–19 and 560,000 in the period between 2018–19 and 2020–21.
  • Wildlife: The major programmes are Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats, National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems, Project Tiger, and Project Elephant. It is not clear if the present government has made any significant investment in this field.

Criticisms of the BJP government’s lacklustre handling of climate policies and dilution of environmental laws and regulations are plenty. For instance, the government has made it easier for corporations to get wildlife clearances. As per the Centre for Science and Environment, the government considered and implemented a list of 60 action points submitted by the Confederation of Indian Industry, whose main aim was to remove obstacles to environment clearances for industries. Further, the relaxed coastal protection laws will open up ecologically sensitive coastlines for real estate, ports, tourism, and other infrastructure projects.

Over the past five years, the NDA government has made it easier to obtain green clearances, ostensibly to make the process less bureaucratic and more efficient. This has been viewed as contrary to the goals of environment protection and conservation, and a dishonest scheme to sell off parts of the rich forest lands and resource-rich areas of the country to private players. It is also seen as an attack on the rights of traditional forest dwellers, most of whom belong to indigenous, tribal groups. Some of the main critiques can be read here and here.

Future schemes and strategies

So, what can one expect from NDA’s second outing? After all, the BJP’s manifesto didn’t promise any grand new schemes.

One can expect the government to see its proposed amendments through. For instance, changes to the Indian Forest Act, 1927, were proposed before the elections, all of which would grant more power to the forest bureaucracy, increase afforestation for carbon sequestration, and impose harsh penalties for violations. Then there’s the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification wherein the government wants local urban bodies and municipalities to give environment clearances to building and construction projects and constitute a new district-level authority to enforce clearance rules related to the mining of minor minerals. Critics argue this will result in lax implementation of EIA norms.

Last year, the government started the process of revamping the existing national forest policy with several noteworthy goals such as maintaining at least one-third of India’s total land area under forest and tree cover (two-thirds for the hills and mountainous regions), maintenance of environmental stability, and conservation of biodiversity. Even then, its emphasis on industrial forestry, private sector participation, and ignorance of community participation and tribal rights has been criticised.

Also on the anvil is further simplification of rules and regulations and expediting the processes for obtaining clearances for various industrial and commercial projects, especially those pertaining to environment and local laws. The government’s target is to bring down the average time for processing green clearances to under 100 days from the current 180, which was already reduced from the erstwhile 580 days. Measures like launching an online system for application of green clearances for developmental projects and introducing standard conditions for environment clearances to speed up the processes were implemented in its first outing, and there’s good reason to believe such steps will continue to be taken up. The ruling party had touted the speed and efficiency of issuing clearances as one of its achievements in its manifesto.

Although India seems to be on track to achieve its renewable-energy target, the sector will need a mix of further incentives and smart policies to ensure that it doesn’t become stagnant or become mired in political quagmires. The renewables sector has been marked with volatility, affecting prices and investor confidence, and faced land-acquisition challenges as well. Expect some action in this field by the government.

To meet its NDC targets, the government will likely look to the private sector to help deliver its goals. For example, an expert committee formed by the environment ministry has proposed increasing green cover outside the recorded forest areas, partly through recommendations such as leasing out wastelands to corporates for re-greening and encouraging public-private partnership (PPP) models. Newer ideas proposed are issuance of green bonds and generating financial incentives through innovations like establishing a carbon registry. Some of these recommendations may very well be adopted.

In terms of air pollution, the NCAP might be turned into a national mission, as per the BJP’s manifesto promises. Steps could be taken towards eliminating burning of crop residue although there’s no clarity on what those might be.

CB view

India needs to take its climate-change commitments beyond its current NDCs and become a global leader in the fight against global warming. Adaptation is a critical area where the country’s efforts have been severely lagging, and there is an urgent need to build the infrastructure and knowledge to prepare vulnerable communities to respond to the impending threats of climate change.

Expanding the NCAP to the rest of the country, beyond the identified cities, is a no-brainer. Clamping down on polluting factories is another. There’s little point in issuing notifications to polluting industries if those are not strictly enforced. This means empowering CPCB and the state pollution control boards. Investments need to be made in public transport to bring down pollution and carbon emissions. Stricter norms for private vehicles and even radical measures to cut down their number should be considered. The toxic air quality in this country is a national health crisis and the government should be treating it as such.

While development and GDP growth are important barometers to judge the country’s progress, protecting our environment cannot be sacrificed at the altar of corporate profits. Bureaucratic delays notwithstanding, simplifying existing rules simply for the sake of speed doesn’t make economic, social, or moral sense if it means a less efficient, robust and fair process. Diluting laws without taking cognisance of the holistic needs of the environment, impacted communities, and medium- to long-term impact will eventually prove catastrophic. Unfortunately, the attention span of most political parties seems to be constrained by the duration of election cycles. That has to change.

Last year, India was ranked fourth from the bottom out of 180 countries in the Environmental Performance Index. This kind of woeful performance simply cannot continue. The BJP government needs to stop prioritising private interests over environmental and humanitarian ones. When the worst of global warming comes to pass, corporates aren’t going to be the ones to save the country and its inhabitants from ruin.