New environmental laws in India: The next chapter of change

Big changes are coming to environmental laws in India. What can this country’s sustainability story so far tell us about the next steps it will take?  

by Sunita Paudyal

Are environmental laws in India leading the way to protect our planet – or lacking what matters? It all depends on how you look at it. And Indian authorities are doing just thatDespite recent steps to step up sustainability, India’s rapidly growing economy and lack of enforcement still add up to insufficiencyAs such, Indian regulators are (quietly) revising its existing environmental acts and rules, which will likely result in more stringent requirements for companies. Even with no official details available yet on these revised regulationsyou can still get a glimpse of where they’re headed by looking at where they’ve already been. Read what to know about India’s sustainability story to understand it’s next logical step. 

Environmental laws in India are tougher today, but still not enough

Environmental laws in India are adopted, implemented, and enforced by 3 main entities: the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change along with the Central Pollution Control Board at the National level as well as the State Pollution Control Boards at the State level. The main environmental laws in India are, the: 

  • Environmental (Protection) Act 1986 
  • Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974 
  • Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981 
  • Rules made under the above acts  

Like in other countries, these environmental laws set parameters for businesses to follow, such industry specific air emissions, discharge standards. But the problem is that they’re not in line with current needs. 

Water and air pollution is a major concern as dumping hazardous materials in water bodies, and hazardous emissions have been for the most part unmitigated in India. Laws regulating these activities haven’t been updated since they were first formulated in the mid-1970s and 1980s. These laws regulate water/groundwater use consents/permits, compliance with effluent and emission discharge standards, and prohibit pollution of water resources.   

Water and ground water laws are complex in structure as they’re regulated at different levels: National, State, and municipal. On top of that, the lack of a policy framework addressing current economic growth as well as and lackluster enforcement render these laws virtually ineffective. 


India’s sustainability story – so far

Although India’s constitution clearly provides for environmental protection and improvement, the country only started to truly focus on these issues in the 1970s. And that was as a follow-up to the 1972 UN conference in Stockholm. Yet, since then, India has come a long way. The country has moved from reacting to environmental conventions as an obligation to setting an example in sustainability efforts.  

EU-aligned waste management laws 

In 2016 India revised several waste management rules. Among those, hazardous waste, e-waste, and Plastic Waste Management Rules were revised to align India’s waste management with that of other regions, most notably the EUAuthorities incorporated Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) into these laws, imposing significant responsibilities on manufacturers and companies that place products on the Indian market. To minimize the negative impact on the environment throughout products’ lifecycles, these companies are now subject to the polluters pays principal. This approach requires facilities manufacturing or placing products on the market in India to set up mechanisms for collectingchannelizing” (or passing through various passageways such as dealers), and taking them back at the end of life 

Stricter penalties for damaging the environment  

Companies that contravene any provisions of these environmental acts or rules are subject to severe consequencesMore severe than we see in other countries for similar transgressions. Violations in India are punishable with imprisonment for up to 5 years (which is extended up to 7 years if the contravention continues for 1 year after the date of conviction) or fines of up to 1334 USD – or both. In the US, certain environmental contraventions result in 6-months to 1 year in jail. Additionally, the Indian Public Liability Insurance Act (1991)is in place to provide for damages to public victims or properties of accidents that occurred while handling hazardous substances.  

Environmental laws that support sustainable development  

India is one of the few countries in the world that mandates CSR reporting and expenditure. The Companies Corporate Social Responsibilities Policy Rules (2014) and Companies Act (2013) hold certain businesses (i.e., with a certain net worth, turnover, or net profit) to sustainability reporting standards. These companies must constitute a CSR Committee, spend at least 2% of its average net profits on CSR initiatives, and include an annual report on CSR in its annual board report.  

 Yet on top of these significant developments and milestones, there’s still much progress to be done. As the second-most populated country on the planet, India is still one of the most polluting countries. Like its expansion of labor protection and revision of chemical management, the country plans to address this issue through a broader scope of environmental protection. 

How will the existing environmental laws in India change?

India still sorely lacks in environmental compensation and other laws dealing with specific aspects of the environment. Effective regulatory institutions, appropriate compliance mechanisms, transparency in formulating laws, and stringent enforcement of such laws are the key needs of the hour. It’s a high bar to reach, and we don’t yet know exactly how the government plans to do so. 

In 2014, the Subramanian Committee – set up by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) –  reviewed the country’s environmental laws. But its report was rejected by  Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology (PSCST). At that time, the PSCST found that the committee’s essential recommendations would actually weaken existing environmental policies and laws. For instance, its recommendation to create a new “umbrella” law by subsuming the existing environmental laws. As a result, the government formed a new committee to oversee the review process, and we hope to soon see the fruit of its efforts   

Since then, this new committee has been drafting a new law to replace the 3 main existing Acts: Air, Water, and Environment Protection. And it’s doing so under strict confidentiality – away from the public eye. The goal is to consolidate and streamline the environmental laws to prevent overlaps and conflicts. Yet whatever new elements will be added are tightly under wraps.  

The government remains rather quiet about the details of forthcoming environmental regulation

But… why so secret?

While Minister Narendra Modi sang India’s praises for its climate change efforts at the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), the government remains rather quiet about the details of forthcoming environmental regulation. 

The process of formulating and adopting environment laws in India has never been transparent – nor participatory for the community. In fact, the government enacted some of recent laws as a way to cater to expanding industrial growth rather than the environment or public.  

Case in point: Exemptions in the construction sector. In 2009, the Ministry of Environment proposed to exempt construction projects of up to 50,000 square meters from obtaining Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). For citizens, this was clearly prioritizing the interest of emitters rather than the victims of pollutants.  The majority of the country’s known environmental scientists raised their voices – stating why this proposal will have a great impact on the environment. As a result, the proposal was dropped. 

However, the review process for the most recent environmental law changes has been more hush-hush than those before it. Because there’s still little information about this current round of revision, we can only speculate that the government is aware of the deficiencies in their approach. In other words, the government is motivated by the increasing uproar from the public that led them to revise existing laws in the first place. And hopefully, the committee wants to get it right before it’s in the public eye.

New environmental laws in India: More about opportunity than oppression.

Even without concrete information, we can confidently say that the new environmental laws in India won’t likely dilute any existing provisions. (Especially after huge public backlash in the past.) Instead, companies should expect more stringent enforcement, streamlined laws, and new provisions to better protect and improve environmental health.  

Regardless of how strict, these future requirements will bring with them opportunity. This approach will put businesses on the right path to adopting more sustainable and profitable models for long-time growth. Your company can get ahead with a detailed global outlook of trends. Assess your processes against evolving standards, such as for net-zero objectives and ESG to see what next steps you should take for sustainability. 

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