In the wake of what is being called a “historic” pact — the Paris Agreement reached in December 2015 — World Environment Day 2016 hopefully heralds an age of environmental optimism.

In the ensuing months since the Paris pact, the country has seen massive forest fires, a flood, a drought, and heat wave — typical examples of environmental damage and climate change — making the pool of environmental problems in the country vast.

However, within those individual problems, the biggest environmental concern lies in non-compliance with laws, say experts.

The focus on strong environmental laws has left a gap with no emphasis on compliance and monitoring of the situation. “People are emphasising a lot on the ‘future’ of environmental laws but commitment to compliance is very poor. Compliance is not a techno-fix. You can’t just have online monitoring and GPS monitoring and leave it at that,” said Kanchi Kohli, Legal Research Director at the Namati Environmental Justice Program of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR).

Dilution of norms While Prakash Javadekar, Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, has recently said that now after the ministry has addressed the issue of “delays” in environmental clearances and brought down the time taken to 190 days, the ministry will now address the issue of compliance.

The question environmentalists ask, however, is whether compliance with diluted norms counts?

In the two years Javadekar has been at the helm of the ministry, several environmental norms have been diluted — allowing limited expansion of coal mines without any new clearances; reducing buffer zones around protected reserves sites; proposal to dilute the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) to do away with need to look at the impact on people’s health and on eco-geological features; toning down Environmental Impact Assessment norms for range of projects; and reducing the need for public hearing, among others. These moves, meant to expedite clearances, also address the issue of “compliance”.

“Compliance is a route to allow unrestricted industrial expansion,” said Advocate Ritwick Dutta who practices environmental law, adding that paring down regulations has been a way for the government to show compliance on paper.

“There is neither will nor the technical expertise to ensure compliance with laws. If you have say 10 industries or dams along a river and each of them fulfils the norm, is that the ground for allowing every single industry to be set up? What about the cumulative impact?” he asked.

Dutta further added that the government has also been following the tactic of looking at different parameters for different areas. For example, in the case of air pollution, some centres in India don’t take into account both PM10 and PM2.5 pollutants and only account for PM10, allowing for easier compliance with pollution norms.

Sunita Narain, Director General of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), also said that online monitoring methods have little credibility.

“We really need to improve monitoring and enforcement of regulations. We have too much emphasis on clearances,” Narain said.

Rejection rate zero Himanshu Thakkar, environmentalist and water expert, said, “Environmental governance in India is in very bad shape. Our decision making process is flawed, public hearing has become a sham, rejection rate is zero, there is no consultation, and to add to that the government has no compliance capacity.”

He further said, “The biggest problem with our environmental governance is one we don’t want to take informed decisions with proper appraisal, consultation and monitoring and second, we don’t take democratic decisions.” Thakkar was referring to the alienation of tribals and forest dwelling communities who have been one of the biggest casualties of the diluting environmental laws. The TSR Subramanian Committee report, which the Bill takes cues from, also seeks industry to police itself “in good faith”.