Governance, Personal Takes

Environmental Governance – Our Constitutional Provisions, Rights and Duties

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Is environmental governance a thing? As the Indian democracy celebrates the 70th year of Indian constitution coming into effect, we can call ourselves proud owner of a governing document achieved for the citizens instead of just a governing act. We now need to shift the ownership to guardianship. Are the true custodians of this document also its guardians? It is a document that is subject to constant evolution and progress. The Indian Constitution helped us make a transition to an independent republic nation with democratic government system as opposed to the slavery imposed upon us by the British regime.

As we march ahead with this gift of freedom imparted to us by our ancestors, it is our moral duty to introspect how much have we actually used our independence to walk away from the British colonial rule, how much have we actually contributed to synthesize a sustainable democratic fabric that truly can be called ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’, and how well has India actually materialized the phrase ‘democratic government system’. Our country presently is marred by various social and economical issues like unemployment, a deteriorating quality of the most of our basic and crucial institutions like judiciary, press, administrative departments etc., environmental degradation and most importantly, the increasing autocracy in the disguise of democracy.

If we really want to resolve these issues, it won’t happen all alone by the government in power. A lot of us fail to realize that democracy is a two-way system in its elemental form. We often blame the politicians in power for the deterioration of the nation but hardly do we know, that we, ourselves have to join hands with the government to maintain the functionality of the system. It is a 50-50 work scheme for citizens and government rather than a 0-100 one. If one of the two is careless or defunct, the other one is definitely affected. All of us know and are negatively affected by this dysfunctional dynamic in some way or the other. Even after 70 years of democracy, our rural areas lack in basic necessities like electricity supply, medication and healthcare, educational provisions, sanitation, and the list goes on. In addition to this, our culture is under threat with languages and their dialects going extinct, people disowning their roots.

Taking our environment as a matter of discussion, we get to know that there are enough provisions and laws in the constitution to educate, motivate and compel the citizens to conserve our environment. However, a majority of us are’nt properly aware of these provisions, duties and rights regarding environment and its conservation, and that is one of the major problems to be considered.

Environment, by definition includes water, air, and land and the interrelationship which exists among and between water, air and land, and human beings, other living creatures, plants, microorganisms, and property; which means that we should consider all the aspects/forms of life except only our own species and start to practice coexistence to ensure harmony. Our constitution and judiciary are two of the most essential pillars if we want to lay the foundation of this harmony. Here are several examples and key points that we need to know to ensure our environmental governance is in place.

The chapter on the fundamental duties of the Indian Constitution clearly imposes a duty on every citizen to protect the environment. Article 51-A (g), says that “It shall be duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures.” which makes it clear that it is a combined duty of all of us to conserve the environment. This is also backed by Article 48 -A of the constitution which states that “the state shall endeavor to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country”

However, some are still ignorant or delusional regarding these facts and are still thinking that it is the duty of the officials and the government only to protect our nature and its resources. Sure, there are a huge number of environmentalists and activists who constantly work to spread the awareness but being a private institution or an individual, it becomes difficult for them to reach to the maximum number of people. What our judiciary, government, and officials can do here, is to be a facilitator for this knowledge to be delivered to people of all the social/economic/age/gender groups.

Right to a safe environment is also a right without which development of an individual and the realisation of his or her full potential shall not be possible. Articles 21, 14 and 19 of this part have been used for environmental protection.

Article 21 itself is a fundamental right stating that, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”

This statement doesn’t clearly state anything related to the conservation of our environment but taking the word ‘life’ in broader terms, we surely get a message out of it. It also takes into account the deliberate discrimination and violence against the tribals. Schedule V, which is not yet fully implemented in all the states of the country, explains how consistent engagement from all teh stakeholders and give us some hope.

Moreover, Article 19 (1) (g) of the Indian constitution provides a fundamental right to every citizen to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business. But this is subject to reasonable restrictions imposed upon citizens to safeguard public health and to protect the environment. As an example: The Supreme Court, while discussing the matter related to the continuation of liquor trade in Cooverjee B. Bharucha Vs Excise commissioner, Ajmer (1954, SC 220) case, observed that, if there is a clash between environmental protection theright to freedom of trade and occupation, the SC has to decide in the favor of environmental interests against fundamental right to indulge in any occupation. This leads us to the development and implementation of the “the Precautionary Principle” that makes sure that the environment and public health are given priority in the case of uncertainty. While “the Polluter Pays Principle” also makes a logical statement to impose the cost of pollution on the one who is responsible for it. Both of these are essential for the idea of “Sustainable Development.”

Talking about the forest cover and the laws regarding the same, India’s first national forest policy and the second national forest policy released in 1952 and 1988 respectively, deliberately stressed on achieving 33 percent of India’s total geographical area under forest cover. Last year, the Indian government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) came out with a draft of the country’s third national forest policy which too emphasized on the same. However, the final target is yet to be finalized. But the shocking thing is that the Indian environment ministry has approved the use of over 20,000 hectares of forestland for projects like thermal power plants, mining etc. which makes the forest restoration more difficult. It is impossible to cease the act of deforestation since the industrial revolution has begun but the rate of deforestation and the total forest cover can be maintained by two combined approaches: (i) setting limitations upon total deforestation (by the government) (ii) increasing the rate of reforestation (by the people)

It’s disheartening to see that every political party who has ever been in power to govern, has barely managed to do anything to eradicate the colonial influence, derive any robust policies that have strong scientific backing to represent and identify our geography. Little has been done for our tribal communities to conserve their culture, land rights, languages and way of living through environmental governance. The point here is, that it is not possible to bring about a significant change without the citizens and the government working together in alignment. Both of us are combined system, who can together restore the lost balance between man and nature. Governance is perhaps the sure and the only way to meet the deadlines climate change continues to threaten us with.  So participate NOW!

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