The risks and costs associated with industrial, infrastructure, and extractive projects to local communities can be high. These projects can lead to displacement, compromise well-being and health, threaten traditional livelihoods, and endanger those living nearby. India is preparing for accelerated growth that centers around industrial expansion and resource extraction. Its plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2070 through large-scale renewable energy deployment is being pursued simultaneously.
However, the urgency to switch to renewable technologies cannot bypass communities and civil society. This report examines the current environmental regulatory system in India and identifies opportunities and challenges to meaningful public participation in decision-making. It offers recommendations for broadening the space for public engagement. The report is supported by a toolkit with practical suggestions to enhance public participation in environmental decision-making in India.
To ensure that India’s growth, economic recovery, and energy transition are achieved with the least social conflict, ecological impact, and human costs, inputs from the public, civil society, and grassroots actors are crucial. The report examines the various mechanisms for public participation, their barriers and limitations, and outlines recommendations to strengthen the public participation process.
Mechanisms for public participation in environmental decision-making can be analyzed at three levels:
- Law and policy making: during the creation of laws, including delegated and subordinate legislation;
- Planning and governance: during landscape or urban planning;
- Project decisions: during environmental scrutiny of a new project or an expansion.
The analysis of available public participation mechanisms and their possibilities highlight limitations to the existing environmental decision-making systems, which include:
- Few legitimate spaces: Existing mechanisms offer limited legitimate spaces for public engagement in environmental decisions, and most of these spaces are often unable to influence decisions that impact neighborhoods and natural resources.
- One-time participation: Current mechanisms only allow for a one-time hearing, consultation, or interaction without adequate follow-up actions by the project proponents or authorities.
- Limited scope for appeal: In the absence of a clear mechanism to appeal against poorly conducted public hearings and consultations, people often approach the courts, which is difficult and lengthy.
- Weak post-approval grievance redress: There are insufficient and weak mechanisms available for people to register complaints and raise concerns after a project has been approved.
- Limitations of protests and litigation: Citizens are often pushed to use their constitutional right to protest, complain to international forums, or approach the courts. Due to issues of access, privilege, availability of resources, and affordability, these mechanisms can also lead to skewed participation and raise questions about equity within environmentalism.
The international law on public participation in environmental decision-making requires genuine implementation of the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy, including awareness-raising of its requirements among central departments and state governments. In addition, efforts should be made to raise awareness of the policy among civil society.
A committee with representation from the Environment Ministry, Ministry of Law, and civil society working on issues of enhanced citizen engagement in policymaking should define the term “public interest.”
Laws issued by states under the Citizen’s Charter provide for time-bound service delivery to citizens by various departments. These services should be extended to citizens aggrieved by pollution and bad environmental decisions. In addition, affected citizens should be guaranteed time-bound action against the violators aimed at remediating environmental harm.
The information on complaints received, steps taken, and resolutions achieved by various environmental institutions should be publicly available online. Additionally, civil society groups can initiate crowdsourcing websites/platforms where citizen complaints and government actions will be made available.
Governments at all levels should proactively create conditions for meaningful participation. They should also inform the public about such processes, including publicizing upcoming changes in simple, non-technical terms in local languages, and providing platforms for appeal and complaint submission.
Objectives of public participation exercises should be defined. Once it is clear what the targets are, studies can be carried out to measure the effectiveness of existing practices and ways to achieve the desired outcomes.