Environmental Governance and Human Rights: The Role of The Civil Society And Challenges in India

The Indian judiciary is often credited for developing environmental jurisprudence in India. The Indian courts have devised and put to use a unique method of imparting environmental justice-doing away with the principle of locus standi and devising Public Interest Litigations (PILs) instead. Moreover, environmental governance largely rests in the hands of the government, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) being the nodal agency in the administrative structure of the Central Government for the planning, promotion, co-ordination and overseeing the implementation of India’s environmental and forestry policies and programmes. However, active participation of the local communities, farmers, students, environmental activists, academicians, lawyers, NGOs and members of Civil Society in galvanizing the government machinery for establishing and implementing norms related to the environment as well as in mobilizing the masses for environmental causes must not be overlooked.  While the top-down approach followed by the Judiciary in recognizing and enforcing environment principles is often appreciated, the bottom-up approach adopted by the civil society to strive for environmental justice also deserves mention.

Civil Society and Environmental Governance-An Interface

Although there is no clear-cut definition of civil society, it is mostly understood in contrast to the state. Cohen defines civil society as “we understand “civil society” as a domain of social exchange between economy and state, comprised above all of the close area (especially the family), the sphere of associations (especially voluntary groups), social movements, and forms of public communication. Modern civil society is created through forms of self-constitution and self-mobilization. It is institutionalized and generalized though laws, and especially subjective rights, that stabilize social differentiation. While the self-creative and institutionalized dimensions can exist separately, in the long term both independent action and institutionalization is necessary for the reproduction of civil society.”The American writer Jeremy Rifkin calls civil society “our last, best hope’’; New Labour politicians in the UK see it as central to a new “project” that will hold society together against the onrush of globalizing markets, the United Nations; the United Nations and the World Bank see it as one of the keys to “good governance” and poverty-reducing growth. The membership of the civil society is quite diverse, ranging from individuals to faith-based and educational institutions to pressure groups such as NGOs or not-for-profit organizations.

Governance is often described as a new form of regulation that differs from traditional hierarchical state activity (‘government’). Generally, ‘governance’ implies notions of self-regulation by societal actors, of private-public cooperation in the resolving of societal issues and new forms of multilayered policy. Environmental Governance is defined as the process that links and harmonizes policies, institutions, procedures, tools and information to allow participants (public and private sector, NGOs, local communities) to manage conflicts, seek points of consensus, make fundamental decisions, and be accountable for their actions. In the context of Global Environment Governance, Gemmmill and Bamidele-Izu have identified the following five major roles which civil society might play in global environmental governance: (1) collecting, disseminating, and analyzing information; (2) providing input to agenda-setting and policy development processes; (3) performing operational functions; (4) assessing environmental conditions and monitoring compliance with environmental agreements; and (5) advocating ecological justice. The increasing role of civil society in global environmental diplomacy is often explained with two arguments: 1) Civil society representatives provide valuable information and expertise to governments and thus help them reach “better,” that is, more effective, agreements. This information provision role becomes particularly important when governments face budgetary constraints. 2) They provide legitimacy to intergovernmental negotiations and thus mitigate the “democratic deficit” in global policy making, which takes place far away from domestic political arenas and the national demos.

Environmental Movements in India and Role of Civil Society

The environmental movement is a type of “social mobility that involves a group of individuals and alliances that perceive a common interest in environmental protection and act to bring about new changes in environmental policies and practices.”In India, these movements emerged as a response to the environmental challenges arising due to the developmental policies espoused by governments. The Chipko Movement or the Chipko Andolan was perhaps one of the first ecological movements which saw the participation of marginalized and tribal communities in forest conservation. Starting as Forest Satyagraha in the 1930s in Uttar Pradesh (now Uttarakhand), the movement has spread too many other States in India like Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Karnataka by 1980s.  The upsurge of similar environmental movements, demanding that forest ownership and management must revert from state to communal hands and that local communities should be actively involved in afforestation programs brought significant changes in government’s policy about forest management. A large number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) ably assisted the environmental movements in their efforts: the directory of environmental NGOs in India published in 1989 lists 879 large and small NGOs spread throughout the country of which half were involved with forest-related issues.

The success of this collaborative struggle was reflected in India’s National Forest Policy of 1988 and the Circular on Joint Forest Management of 1990. In revising its national forest policy in 1988, the Indian government for the first time declared that forests were not only to be commercially exploited but must also contribute to soil conservation, environ mental protection, and the survival needs of the local population. Another significant environmental movement in the history of modern India is the movement against the Silent Valley Project. The Silent Valley is a stretch of Tropical Evergreen Forest in Pallakad district of Kerala.   The Movement was launched against the decision of the State government to build a hydroelectric dam across the Kunthipuzha River that runs through the Silent Valley. However, because of the strong opposition from NGOs, conservationists, academicians and eminent writers, corporate and political leaders along with the media, Silent valley was declared a protected area in 1981 and the Project was called off in 1983.

The Save the Narmada Movement (Narmada Bachao Andolan, NBA) is the people’s movement launched against the construction of huge dams on the river Narmada. NBA is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that mobilized tribal people, adivasis, farmers, environmentalists and human rights activists against the Sardar Sarovar Dam being build across the Narmada River, Gujarat. Their campaign led to the establishment of a Bank commission in 1991 to independently review the project, which ultimately recommended the World Bank’s withdrawal. One of the most important features of these environmental movements in India has been the active involvement and participation of local voluntary organizations or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). For example, Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal (DGSM),a cooperative organization started by Chandi Prasad Bhatt actively participated in the Chipko Movement along with activist Sunder Lal Bahguna. Inspired by Gandhian principles of Non-violence and the idea of Sarvodaya (self-determination), the cooperation educated the village-community and mobilized them against the logging of trees.

Similarly, the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) started the agitation against the Silent Valley Project. KSSP, a People’s Science Movement (PSM) founded in 1962 from Kerala published a socio-political report on the ecological, economic, and social impacts of the hydro-electric project proposed in the Silent Valley. The Movement also saw the participation of eminent poets and writers, who educated the masses about the significance of the valley through stories, poems, dramas, speeches, and articles. Poet-activist Sugathakumari’s poetry “Marathinu Stuthi” (Ode to a Tree) became the opening song/prayer of most of the “save the Silent Valley” campaign meetings. The KSSP also worked for the energy needs of the State and developed environmental- friendly alternatives such as smokeless chulhas and irrigation using ground water to the optimum extent. The alternatives suggested by the organization were widely adopted or practiced that the UNESCO conferred its Right to Livelihood Award on KSSP and the UNEP included it in its `Roll of Honour. The protest groups formed in all three affected states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and included or were supported by persons facing displacement, students, social activists, Indian environmental NGOs, international NGOs, and transnational networks. The support groups of Narmada Bachao Andolan mainly of activist groups and registered NGOs mainly classified into three main groups- those with interest in human rights, the environment, and alternative development.

Environmental Human Rights and Environmental Justice: The Legal Strategies and the Role of Civil Society

India owes its environmental activism mostly to Public Interest Litigations (PIL) developed by Justice P.N. Bhagwati and Justice Krishna Iyer, two Supreme Court judges in the 1980s. The Supreme Court of India declared that “where a wrong against community interest is done, the principle of locus standi will not always be a pre-requisite to draw the attention of judiciary against a public body for their failure in discharging constitutional duties.” By taking on board the citizens’ concern about an inactive or indifferent legislature and executive, the Supreme Court has created space for the civil society groups to engage as active participants in the scheme for protecting the environment and ensuring an individual right to a healthy environment. As a result, in some cases, civil society groups have put forward different views on development activities such as the socio-cultural and environmental impact of development policy in the environmental decision-making process. Moreover, by allowing the third party to file cases related to the environment, the court has given voice to the inanimate objects, like forests and rivers, which cannot represent themselves in courts.

However, the role played by concerned citizens and NGOs in filing these PILs is essential. A number of these cases, beginning with the Dehradun Lime Stone Quarrying case (1989 AIR 594) followed by the Tehri Dam case (AIR 2008 MP 142),Bichhri Village Industrial Pollution case, (Writ Petition No. 967/1989)Vellore Leather Industry Pollution case, (AIR1996SC2715) Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary case (1993 SCR (3) 21) and T.N. Godavarman case ((1996) 9 S.C.R. 982) came to court’s attention through Public Interest Litigations and were filed by either Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)or concerned citizen/environmental activists on behalf of other persons or groups or public. Several environmental activists like MC Mehta have filed PILs in Supreme Court of India to protect the environment. The lawyer cum environmental-activist, single-handedly, has filed petitions in the courts to protect the environment. Landmark environmental cases filed by him include the Taj Mahal case, ((1997)2 SCC 353) Ganges Pollution case (1988 AIR 1115), Vehicular Pollution case (AIR 1999 SC 301),Oleum Gas Leak Case(1987 SCR (1) 819), Kamal Nath Case ((1997)1 SCC 388) and many other such cases.

The Supreme Court Case Reports show that that out of 104 environmental cases from 1980-2000 in the Supreme Court of India, 54 cases were filed by persons who were not directly the aggrieved parties and 28 cases were filed by the NGOs on behalf of the affected parties. What makes these cases interesting is that in most of them, the Supreme Court has read environmental rights into basic fundamental rights (especially Article 21) guaranteed under the Constitution, thus making them a bedrock of environmental jurisprudence in India. The Supreme Court has also taught various environmental principles like Sustainable Development, Polluter’s Pay Principle, Precautionary Principle, Public Trust Doctrine and Principle of Absolute Liability into these cases, and thus, within environmental jurisprudence.

Environmental Governance Challenges: The Road Ahead

Indian Courts, while deciding upon an environmental issue, are often confronted with the problem of striking a balance between development needs of India and protection of the environment. For example, in Rural Litigation & Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun v. The State of Uttar Pradesh(AIR 1985 SC 652), the Supreme Court, was informed about the developmental needs of the region that the closure of the mining operations would result in and the subsequent loss of jobs by the workers. The Court took the position that its action would undoubtedly cause hardships to them, but argues that it was the price that had to be paid for protecting and safeguarding the rights of the people to live in the healthy environment with minimal disturbance of the ecological balance and with avoidable hazard to them and their cattle, homes and agricultural land. The case is the classic example of the dilemma faced by the courts in resolving the debate between development and environment.

However, the problem faced in the enforcement of the decisions of the courts is more acute. In many respects, the Indian government machinery has failed to adequately enforce the existing environmental laws and the decisions of the court. Although there are many causes for this failure, the primary reason is corruption. While the judiciary has acted as the savior of environmental rights in India, the implementation of these rights has been highly problematic. Corruption exists at all levels of governments in India and its impact on the environment is profound, and amount to a clear violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. One of the other reasons why executive has not been able to enforce environmental laws and decisions effectively is the inefficiency of the administrative bodies concerned with the implementation of these laws.  Since environmental concerns came into existence under the pressure of environmentalists and NGOs in India, therefore, one finds a piecemeal approach rather than an integrated approach at the planning level. Vyas and Reddy point out the problems in environmental governance in India, i.e. lack of coordination between various departments concerned with environmental issues. He notices that the functioning of various departments does not reflect the concern of the policy-makers towards environment since most of these departments are ineffective in implementing the environmental policies due to the limited powers are given to them.

Moreover, they do not have resources to assess the extent of environmental degradation scientifically. This lack of coordination seriously affects the implementation of laws and policies related to the environment. Another concern in this regard is the role played by the masses in implementation of the court’s orders. For example, in the Delhi Vehicular Pollution Case, the role of civil society, especially citizens, is criticized. In this case, despite Court’s pivotal role, lack of public participation was responsible to some extent for slow progress in cleaning up of Delhi air. To make the policies effective the available human resources capacity need to be augmented to address the environmental issues.

Long before the courts in India started delivering landmark judgments for protecting the environment, the civil society has generated enough environmental consciousness amongst the people to stand against any major destruction of the ecosystem they thrive on. Various social cum environmental movements spread along the country made it evident that people at the grass root, who are directly affected by the developmental policies persuaded religiously by the governments, will not surrender their cultural and social rights easily. These subaltern movements saw unprecedented participation and support of people from all walks of society; villagers, women, academicians, lawyers, students, activists, politicians, and NGOs. The environmental consciousness generated by and in the civil society as a result of these movements later found expression in the form of Public Interest Litigations. PILs became a tool in the hands of environmental crusaders and activists to persuade the government to uphold the rights of the citizens. However, the road for achieving environmental justice in India is fraught with challenges. The courts are often faced with the dilemma of choosing between development and environment, and the decisions are often not implemented in the way courts have meant them to be implemented. The reason is the lack of efficient machinery and widespread corruption.

Bushra Tariq
Bushra Tariq
LL.M., Ph.D. Scholar, Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University, New Delhi-110021