This UN report shows green laws remain in books

By Kiran Pandey
Thursday 31 January 2019 || Down To Earth

Poor implementation of environmental laws is now a global problem, says the report that demystifies the reasons behind the failure

The world fares poorly on implementation of environmental laws and regulations despite the fact that 38 times more green laws have been framed and approved in the last four decades, says the United Nations (UN) in its first ever global assessment of environmental laws. India serves as a perfect example to this issue.

India’s people and the environment have been paying the price for its lethargic and poor state of environmental governance. This is reiterated by a high-level committee set up the environment ministry in 2014. Like the Water Act, which was implemented in 1974, a number of laws and regulations have been existing for more than four decades now, but are proving to be ineffective.

Sunita Narain, director general of the New Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment, said, “We are perfect in the policy department but implementation is a problem. We have weak deterrents. The systems of accountability have been weakened, so monitoring is a huge problem. You can’t fix things if you disregard/disable institutions in power.”

India ranked 177th out of 180 countries in the 2018 Global Environment Performance Index (EPI) rankings of the Yale University for being unable to improve its air quality, protect its biodiversity, and cut its greenhouse gas emissions. It also slipped by 36 points in 2018 from 141 in 2016.

India has several rules and guidelines to control air pollution, but they aren’t put to good use. Coal-based power plants continue to be the major source of air pollution in the country as more than 300 coal thermal power plants still violate emission standards, said the Union environment ministry in 2015.

Judiciary too is ignored

More than two-thirds of the states/union territories in the country have neither bothered to comply with the orders passed by the Supreme Court, nor complied with the directions given by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC).

The judiciary’s order failed to even curb illegal rat hole mining and miners in Meghalaya paid the price for that. Acting on the orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the Meghalaya government in 2015, suspended rat hole mining and transportation of coal in the entire state. But four years later, illegal practices continue unabated in the state.

In a scenario where the judiciary is already struggling to clear the existing backlog of over 21,000 environment-related cases, lack of respect and poor implementation of the judiciary’s orders only provides an explanation for degraded environment we live in.

Not just a national problem

As many as 88 countries have adopted the constitutional right to a healthy environment and more than 350 environmental courts and tribunals exist in around 50 countries says the UN report. But, failure to fully implement and enforce the environmental laws is one of the greatest challenges towards mitigating climate change, reducing pollution and preventing widespread species and habitat loss.

Poor coordination across government agencies, weak institutional capacity, lack of access to information, corruption and stifled civic engagement are the key factors behind the poor effectiveness and implementation of environmental regulations, said the report.

David Boyd, UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said, “This compelling new report solves the mystery of why problems such as pollution, declining biodiversity and climate change persist despite the proliferation of environmental laws in recent decades”

Unless implementation and enforcement is strengthened, even rules that appear to be rigorous are destined to fail and the fundamental human right to a healthy environment will go unfulfilled, he added.

Underlining the growing resistance to environmental laws, the report also advocated on behalf of the environmental activists and whistle blowers. It said 908 people, including forest rangers, government inspectors, and local activists, were killed in 35 countries between 2002 and 2013 and 197 were killed in 2017 alone.

According to Carl Bruch, director of international programs at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington DC, and lead author of the UN study, the world needs to shift its focus from development of policies and institutions to implementation and enforcement.