Indian concern for the environment is as old as our origin of civilisation. Ancestors did understand the meaning of environment as “the environment is sum total of water, air and land, inter-relationships among themselves and also with the human beings, other living organisms and property.” This definition appears in the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.The Arthashastra by Kautilya described environmental policy, written as early as between 321 and 300 BC, contained provisions meant to regulate a number of aspects related to the environment. In recent years, particularly since the early 1970’s, the world has become increasingly sensitised to environmental issues. These issues cut across many disciplines and occur at different spatial scales.
The unprecedented population growth and advanced technology have led to man’s impact on environment becoming appreciable, so that, there is mounting pressure on both environment and resources. Today there is considerable concern as to whether the earth’s life support system itself is being jeoparadised (Sarkar, 1994).
Movements for the protection of Environment exist from the ancient times; few of the notable movements are Chipko movement, Appiko Movement, Narmadha Bachao Andolan and few more, even today there is a tussle between Environment and Development. For the effective protection of environment there were international conventions ; namely Stockholm Declaration and Rio Declaration. India being a signatory for the convention for protection of environment it did bring a impeccable change as to way of living and the developmental activities of the nation.
Environmental policy of a country is determined by international actors – either through trade conditions pushed by public pressure of the trading partner or through international covenants. The UN Conference on Human Environment in 1972, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone layer in 1987, the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change in 1997 and the Bali Roadmap to the UN Framework on Climate Change in 2007 have been important milestones in the evolution of international environmental policy.
It was truly observed by our late Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi at Stockholm Conference in 1972, that environment cannot be developed in the condition of poverty, the major cause and effect of global environmental problems. Hence the new development paradigm is growth with equity, stability and sustainability.
The idea of growth at all costs was replaced by the idea of sustainable development. ‘Sustainable Development’ became a key word and its importance was reemphasized at the ‘Earth Summit’ held at Rio in 1992. The prime concern in all countries at present is to make environmental dimensions an integral part of their developmental plans (Kayastha, 1992). However guidelines and principles proclaimed at the Rio Conference are not legally binding but carry a strong moral force to ensure their binding (Bal,2005).
The commercialisation of forests during the colonial period resulted in large scale degradation. Since the eighteenth century, the colonial rule established the commercialisation of forests in different parts of the country, and large areas of forests were denuded for commercial purposes during the pre-Forest Act period (Saravanan, 1998, 1999). In the early nineteenth century, large quantities of sandalwood were exported to foreign countries. Coffee and tea plantations were established in the hill areas during the second quarter of the nineteenth century (Saravanan, 1999). British iron-making industries also extracted huge number of trees from the forest. Also during the second half of the century, forests were denuded on large-scale for establishing the railways. The colonial agrarian policy also envisaged the expansion of cultivation, which led to the denudation of the forests.
The first Indian Forest Act was drafted in 1865. Under this Act, the Forest resources were brought under the control of State. Of course, this was done by the colonial administration to meet its future imperial needs. Later a Reserved Forest Act 1878 came into operation in most of the British province in India. For the first time through this Act, the Forests were classified as ‘Reserved’ and ‘Protected’ and paved for some sort of conservation, though again with vested interests to serve the purpose of the Imperial Administration. Under this act, the Forest Department (FD) took over forests under its control restricting the rights of the tribals and forest users from their traditional customary rights in the guise of reserving forests.
The Indian Forest Act of 1927 replaced the earlier 1878 Act. By that time, Indianisation of forest administration had gathered strength. The implementation of the Montague Chelmsford reforms by the British Government in 1921 placed the subject of forests under the nominal control of elected legislatures in provinces. The preamble of the Act stated that it sought to consolidate the law relating to the transit of forest produce and the duty livable on timber and other forest produce. There was a clear and continued emphasis on the revenue-yielding aspect of forests.
The early post-colonial Government forest policies were not different from the colonial ones. The National Forest Policy of 1952 also had not considered the needs of local people. In fact, its aim was to supply timber for the industrial needs. In other words, commercialisation of forest was emphasised, like the colonial regime, at the cost of the local people. According to the policy, the rights and interests of future generations should not be subordinated to the imprudence of the present generation. Indiscriminate extension of agriculture and consequent destruction of forests has not only deprived the local population of fuel and timber but has also stripped the land of its natural defences against erosion.
The United Nations Conference on Human Environment marked a milestone in the evolution of environmental policy-making in India. The Indian Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, was the only head of Government to address the Conference in Stockholm other than the Swedish Prime Minister. The Government of India embraced the declaratory principles of the UN Conference whole-heartedly and refashioned environmental policy through a flurry of legislative and administrative activity. In 1972,he National Council for Environmental Planning and Policy was set up by the government, which was later evolved as the Ministry of Environment and Forest in 1985.
Until 1976 environment protection did not appear anywhere in the Constitution. However, in the 42nd amendment of the Constitution in 1976, certain environmental provisions were introduced. Article 48A was added to the Directive Principles of State Policy and stated “The state shall endeavor to protect and improve the natural environment and safeguard the forests and wildlife in the country.” The Article 51 A (g) of Fundamental Duties states that “It shall be the duty of every citizen in India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes rivers and wildlife and to have a compassion for living creatures”. With this ‘Forests’ and ‘Wildlife’ were dropped from the State list in order to incorporate in the Concurrent (Centre) list.
Another important general framework of environment protection is provided under the umbrella legislation of the Environment Protection Act, 1986 and this law can be of a great value in sustaining legal action for forest conservation. The Environment Protection Act, 1986 was the response to a widely felt need for a general legislation for environment protection. Under the Act, the Central Government is vested with power to take all such measures, as it deems necessary or expedient for the purpose of protecting and improving the quality of environment and preventing, controlling and abating environmental pollution 1).
The Central Government has been empowered to issue directions including the power to direct closure, prohibition and regulation of any industry, operation or process or stoppage or regulation of the supply of electricity or water or any service2).
Subsequent to the enactment of the Environment Protection Act, the Water and Air Acts were Acts were also amended and the Pollution Control Boards were clothed with powers to direct closure, prohibition or restraining of any industry operation or process 3).
Though these Acts do not have specific action points on biodiversity, their liberal interpretation and use can have wide implications for biodiversity conservation. This is specifically true in case of areas of biodiversity importance that are not protected under the existing legal regime. For example the corridors of protected areas that are vital to genetic continuity in PAs are not covered under any law may be protected zones under the Environment Protection Act.
The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (WLPA) is the single most significant statute on wildlife conservation in India. Under it, over five hundred National Parks and Sanctuaries termed protected areas (PAs) in common parlance (though this is not a legal term), have been created or given legal protection. Though there were several laws relating to wildlife prior to 1972, as discussed above, the WLPA was India's first comprehensive legislation, covering the whole country. This law has been explained in detail in another module of the Course.