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Institutional Framework for Environmental
Management in India


It is only during the 70s that environmentalism emerged as an organized movement in India. And the credit for this goes to the Stockholm Conference of 1972. The Government of India, while preparing for India’s participation in the Stockholm Conference, set up a National Committee on Environmental Planning and Co-ordination. Consisting of 14 Members picked from diverse fields of environment management, the Committee’s main function was to advise and recommend to the Central Government the improvement of environment. It was entrusted with the task of planning and coordinating national environmental policies. The Actual implementation of these policies was left to the Ministries and Government agencies. Then in January 1980, the Central Government appointed a Committee, known as Tiwari Committee, to recommend legislative measures and administrative machinery for ensuring environmental protection. A direct result of the recommendations of the Tiwari Committee was the birth of Department of Environment on 1st November 1980. The Department was to Act, both as a coordinating as well as an administrative body. It had not only to co-ordinate national policies for environmental protection and management but also to shoulder administrative responsibilities for regulating and monitoring environmental pollution. In 1985, the Ministry of Environment and Forests was created, subsuming the Department of Environment. Since then, the Ministry of Environment and Forests is the apex body of the Central Government responsible for the planning, promotion and coordination of environmental and forestry programme. At the State level, environmental Boards were set up at the behest of the National Committee on Environmental Planning and Coordination. These Boards were subsequently converted into environmental Departments. Yet another class of institutions for environmental management is the Central and State Pollution Control Boards. These Boards were first established under The Water Act of 1974, to implement the provisions of the Water Act, when they were known as the Central/State Water Pollution Control Board(s). With the enactment of the Air Act in 1981, these Boards had also to monitor air pollution along with water pollution. They were, therefore, re-named as Central/State Pollution Control Board(s). The State Boards implement and enforce the pollution control laws. They lay down standards of pollution as well as make consent orders for discharging sewage or trade effluent into the water and air. They enjoy the powers of closure and stoppage of supply of electricity and water to the offending industry. They can also initiate litigation by filing a complaint in the Court. But they cannot punish the violators of environment.

Legal Framework for Environmental Protection in India

Ancient Indians worshipped nature. Their love and profound respect for environment finds expression in ancient Indian literature. The Vedas are replete with hymns in praise of nature: “I worship the Lord of Air and Water...I worship these again and again”. Few know that world’s first recorded conservation measures, especially for wildlife, were enacted in India around 2300 years ago. Emperor Asoka’s stone edicts on protection of birds and animals survive even to this day. Environmental statutes in modern India date back to mid-nineteenth century. Some of these laws deal with natural resources such as the forests and others cover water and air pollution.

Forest Laws

The Forest Acts of 1865 and 1878 were pieces of colonial legislation. Both the Acts restricted the access of the tribal communities to forest resources and gave exclusive ownership and control over the forests to the colonial masters. In 1927, The Forest Act was passed, repealing the Forest Acts of 1865 and 1878. The Forest Act of 1927 too vests the ownership and control over forest resources in the Government and not in the village communities. The Act empowers the Government to notify any forestland or wasteland as ‘reserved forests’ and certain forests and trees as ‘protected’. Further, the Government can prohibit the breaking up of land for cultivation, pasturing of cattle or clearing of vegetation. Though the Act purported to prevent deforestation, in reality it led to further degradation of environment, as it advanced the cause of forest-based industries.

The rapid drift towards deforestation during the Second World War and the post- independence developmental Activities further aggravated environmental degradation. So, in 1952, the national policy laid down that one third of the total geographical area in India should be brought under tree cover. Pursuant to the Stockholm Conference in 1972, which adopted that natural resources, including forests, should be safeguarded, the subject of forests was deleted from the State list and included in the Concurrent List by the Constitutional (42nd Amendment) Act of 1976. To arrest ecological imbalance and to provide for the conservation of forests by checking indiscriminate diversion of forestlands for non-forest purposes, The Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 was passed by Indian Parliament, increasing the control of the Central Government over the forest resources. This Act makes it necessary for the State Governments to seek prior approval of the Central Government for de-reserving forests, using forestlands for non-forest purposes or leasing of forestlands. In 1988, pursuant to IX World Forestry Conference, the Indian Government amended the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 and also formulated a 22 Vedas literally means ‘knowledge’. They are the first records of the ancient Indians on history, law, economics, religion, philosophy, ethics, environment, aesthetics and other subjects. There are yet other laws that deal with wildlife protection such as The Elephants’ Preservation Act of 1879; and The Wild Birds and Animals Protection Act of 1912.

The objective of the new Forest Policy is to preserve forests as a national resource and to put them to their best use. It envisages social forestry with the help of forest-dwellers and local communities.

Laws preventing water pollution

In pre-independent India, several statutes were enacted to solve the problem of water pollution. The earliest statute addressing water pollution was The Shore Nuisance (Bombay and Kolaba) Act, 1853. This was followed by The Orient Gas Company Act 1857, The Serais Act of 1867, The Indian Penal Code 1872, The Northern Indian Canal and Drainage Act 1873, The Obstruction in Fairways Act 1881, The Indian Ports Act 1908 and The Indian Steam Vessels Act. After independence in 1947, laws such as The River Boards Act 1956 and The Merchant Shipping Act 1958 were enacted. These laws were found practically ineffective in preventing water pollution because they merely touched one or the other aspect of water pollution. After the Stockholm Conference, Indian Parliament passed The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, to prevent and control water pollution and to maintain and restore the wholesomeness of water. As Stated earlier, ‘water’ being a State subject, the State legislatures could have enacted their own laws. But the Water Act is a Central Law. It is a classical example of voluntary surrender of legislative power to Central Government by the State Governments. The Act is a typical command-and-control legislation, comprising a set of “dos” and “don’ts” that are backed by fines and imprisonment. The Act prohibits the discharge of pollutants into water bodies beyond a given standard, and lays down penalties for non-compliances. The responsibility for the enforcement of the Act lies primarily with the State Pollution Control Boards. The Central Pollution Control Board, on the other hand has the mandate to advise the Central Government, co-ordinate the Activities of the State Pollution Control Boards, and to provide them with technical assistance. The Central Pollution Control Board therefore has no real regulatory powers. In other words, while emission/effluent standards are set at the national level, the responsibility for monitoring and enforcement rests with the State Governments. But, from the view point of environmental federalism, the 1988 amendment of the Water Act is quite significant in the sense that it increases the power of the Central Board vis a vis the State Boards. After the amendment the Central Government is empowered to decide that a State Board has failed to comply with the directions of the Central Board and that the functions and powers of the State Board to be taken over by the Central Board. The Water Act does not provide for the funding of the Pollution Control Boards despite the innumerable functions they have to discharge. Hence, The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act of 1977 was enacted to enable the Boards to meet their expenses.

Laws preventing air pollution

The earliest State enactments controlling air pollution by smoke are The Bengal Smoke Nuisance Act 1905, The Bombay Smoke Nuisance Act 1912 and The Gujarat Smoke Nuisance Act 1963. These State enactments were enacted to abate the nuisance arising from excessive smoke from furnaces in cities. The Indian Boiler Act 1923 and The Factories Act 1948 contain some provisions regulating air pollution within the factory. Then in 1981, closely following on the heels of the Water Act, came The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act. In 1987, the Air Act was amended to bring its provisions on par with The Environment (Protection) Act of 1986. The provisions of The Air Act are similar to The Water Act. The functions and the enforcement powers of the State Pollution Control Boards are also similar to those under the Water Act. Under this Act all industries, new as well as old, have to obtain consent orders from the State Boards to operate within air pollution control areas, delineated by the Boards. In practice, all States in India have declared themselves entirely as air pollution control areas. Thus, the whole country is de facto a pollution control area.

The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986

The Water and the Air Acts are piecemeal legislations. Their approach to environment is sectoral, as they focus on only one specific type of pollution. Though they were consistent with the limited objectives of their times, they failed to regard environment as a whole. The need for a general legislation for environmental protection, therefore, led to the enactment of The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. While this Act provides the Central Government with greater powers to set environmental as well as effluent and emission standards, the enforcement powers have been delegated entirely to the States. Rule 3(2) of The Environment (Protection) Rules tilts the balance firmly towards the centre. It clearly specifies that the States can have more but not less stringent standards than the centre.

The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991

As a response to the Bhopal gas tragedy, the worst industrial disaster in the world, Indian Parliament enacted The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991. This Act makes mandatory for all hazardous chemical industries to ensure themselves so as to provide immediate relief to persons, when affected by accidents occurring while handling hazardous substances exceeding the quantity specified in the Act. It also provides for the establishment of an environment relief fund.

The National Environmental Tribunal Act, 1995

Pursuant to The Rio Summit of 1992, Indian Parliament passed The National Environmental Tribunal Act, 1995. This Act provides for strict liability for damages arising out of accidents occurring while handling hazardous substances exceeding the quantity specified under The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991. It prescribes stringent penal provisions (fines and imprisonment) for abuse of environment. It also provides for the establishment of a national environment tribunal for expeditious and effective disposal of cases arising from such accidents.

International Framework for Environmental Regulation

Environment is immune to political boundaries. This is because of the inherent global nature of environment itself. Our planet is one. Our globe is one. All nations are just components of it. Often environment problems, with essentially local impact, have global implications as to qualify for international concern. Thus, although social and economic development is essentially a national issue, its advancement can be a global concern. Further, environmental disasters are not local in their consequences. The sulphur emissions from the American steel mills come down in the form of acid rains destroying the Canadian forests. The toxic industrial effluents discharged into the Rhine by the chemical units in Switzerland poison the drinking water in Holland. The radioactive waste in the Ukraine contaminates the vegetables in Sweden. Power stations in England and Germany pollute the Norwegian lakes and trees. Tree felling in Nepal leads to flooding in Bangladesh. The Chernobyl blast made undrinkable the milk of the cows in Scotland. And the CFC emissions in the north cause skin cancer in the southern hemisphere. International concern for environment dates back to the 19th century. In the 20th century, after the Second World War, environmental concerns appeared on the agenda of a wide variety of international organizations. There were landmark international efforts to protect birds, fish, wildlife and wetlands; to prevent pollution of sea by oil; to ban testing of all kinds of weaponry; dumping of nuclear waste in Antarctic etc. These categories reflect a broadening of the environmental agenda from purely national issues, where single State jurisdiction was apparent, to concerns for the wilderness and wildlife, high seas and nuclear pollution, which are outside the ambit of national jurisdiction and which affect the mother earth as a whole. The future of the earth depends on adopting a model of sustainable development and this was enunciated in Agenda 21 of the Earth Summit in 1992. Protection of ecology, on which depends the survival of mankind, is therefore a common task.


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