On a hunt for some clarifications related to legal provisions of a particular subject, this author chanced to visit the website of the Legislative Department of the Government of India. I was flabbergasted to see the list of 993 Acts, chronologically categorized from1838 to 2019, in the website. None of them were seen as repealed, at least not fully. And mind you, this list is devoid of any Rules framed as corollary to these Acts. There is also an unimaginable volume of legal provisions as Acts and Rules framed by each State in the Indian Union, for various reasons or purposes, missed in the list. This bewildering array of information led me to pen these thoughts.
These Acts were on subjects as diverse as our biodiversity. They dealt with a wide variety of subjects like explosion, prisons, registration and management of private estates, prohibition of white phosphorus matches to epidemics….It brings into its purview living and the non-living, movable and immovable, toxic and non-toxic, visible and invisible… and the list seems endless. All aspects of life are regulated by law. In spite of this, our State seems unorganized and subject to chaos and disorder from time to time.
An individual is legally protected right from the womb. There are innumerable laws that ensure the protection of individuals at every stage of his life. All these have a direct bearing upon an individual’s life. Prevention of selective abortion, child’s entitlement to vaccination, education, prevention of trafficking and child labour etc., are but a few instances of the armour of protection provided by laws. This protection continues into our adult lives too. Our beliefs and rights to follow a particular religion, opportunities for employment, marrying a person of our choice and even the age of marriage is legally spelt out and protected. As an extension of this protection in old to age, social security and caring for senior citizens are also guaranteed by laws.
My present task is to take a closer look at the performance of environmental laws. These can be, for the ease of analysis, classified as forest laws and general environmental laws. The onus of implementing general environmental laws falls on each and every citizen of this land. Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981,Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, Environment (Siting for Industrial Projects) Rules, 1999, Ozone Depleting Substances (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000, Biological Diversity Act, 2002 are some of the major laws which aid in environmental management outside forest areas.
As can be seen from the above list, there exists an extensive legal framework to protect our environment. But our country with a score of 27.6 out of 100, stood 168th in the Environment Performance Index, 2020 (EPI 2020). This is the result of an assessment arrived at by analyzing 32 indicators of environmental health and management of 180 countries in the world. We rank behind every South Asian country with the exception of Afghanistan. So perhaps, we can pause to ask ourselves as to what is happening to our laws, Acts and Rules.
Professional practitioners of law are welcome to dig in to practical reasons and solutions. In any other legal conflict or litigation, both parties have the agency to use appropriate legal methods for mitigation. But in the cases of environmental issues or conflicts, the affected party (air, river, mangrove etc.) by themselves cannot have recourse to the laws of the land for protection, hence they can be thought of as voiceless, suppressed entities. What ultimately becomes their voice are the laws and the conscience of people. It is heartening to note that several individuals and groups are lending their voices to these voiceless entities.
At the same time, a large number of general laws on the environment are openly flouted and often go unnoticed. For instance, the building rules regulating permits for an apartment complex necessitates a functional solid waste management system. Lack of this system compels flat dwellers to dump their daily waste in public spaces or engage women to collect them. This leads to health hazards, seepage and blocking of water bodies, breeding pests etc. Solid waste management has turned out to be a nightmare for all public administration system.
The regulations regarding construction of flats also demand the setting of rain water harvesting mechanisms in all newly constructed buildings. Often such storage spaces, which are present at the time of inspection tend to disappear sooner or later. On the other hand, we rely heavily on bore wells for water. Such short term measures create more problems than solutions as can be seen in the depletion of underground water resources. These are merely few instances. When we look around us, we can see more open violation of environmental laws.
It might be beneficial, while practicing law to be aware of the interconnectedness of human life and environment; that there is a connection between the laws of the land and the environment. For instance, laws associated with the working of a factory include laws against pollution which involves not just the immediate space but also the larger environment. One has to keep in mind that it is such ethics and values that will ultimately ensure the survival and happiness of mankind. Or else, the land of laws will become a land of loss!
Written By: Reney R Pillai, Deputy Director (Wildlife Education), Kerala Forest & Wildlife Department.
(Phone: 9847226644, Mail: reneypillai @ gmail.com)