The recent order of the ministry of environment and forests (MoE&F) rejecting the application for grant of forest clearance to the Orissa Mining Company (the Vedanta project) has raised a number of important questions. The order cited the company’s non-compliance with a number of laws. But the Vedanta case is just one example. There are several projects in the country where similar issues are relevant. The question really is, are the multiple laws that are applicable in such cases in harmony with each other or are they working at cross purposes? In a sector such as mining, doing business is inherently complicated. There are at least four broad aspects that need to be addressed—obtaining mining licences, securing environmental clearances, acquiring land, and rehabilitation of people affected by such projects. We take a look at each of the four broad areas, to understand how the applicable laws interact with one another. Obtaining mining licences Doing business in the mining sector first entails obtaining a licence for activities such as prospecting and mining. The Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, lays down the framework for any prospecting, leasing or mining activity to be carried out for specified minerals, and the licences that need to be obtained. The Act allows the central government to frame the rules and conditions applicable both for grant of licences and for the actual activity carried out by enterprises. The licensing authority for mining activities is the state government. Securing environment clearances Environmental clearances for industrial activities are governed by a number of laws. Most activities require clearances under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. Additionally, for activities in forest areas, clearance is also required under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. Acts pertaining to wildlife protection, bio-diversity and the quality of air and water may also be applicable. The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, enables the central government to take measures for “protecting and improving the quality of the environment and preventing, controlling and abating environmental pollution”. These measures may include (among others) (a) laying down standards for the quality of the environment, (b) areas in which industries or operations may not be carried out, or carried out subject to certain safeguards. The rules framed under the Act make it compulsory for all new projects to take prior environmental clearance. For a specified category of activities clearance has to be obtained from the MoE&F, while for others, clearance has to be obtained from State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities (SEIAAs). The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, prohibits state governments and other authorities from any unauthorised change in the status of areas declared to be reserved forests, and any diversion of forests for non-forest purposes. It prohibits felling of trees within forest areas. Any such action has to be undertaken with the prior permission of the central government. To divert any forest area for non-forest purposes, state governments have to submit formal proposals to the Centre. State governments also have to show proposals for compensatory afforestation. Acquiring land for the project Acquiring land for projects has become increasingly contentious in recent years. The Land Acquisition Act of 1894 appears to have outlived its utility, which led the UPA-1 to introduce a Bill in the Parliament to bring a new legal framework to facilitate land acquisition. The Bill tried to address several critical aspects of land acquisition. It tried to redefine ‘public purpose’ somewhat more strictly than in the existing Act. ‘Public purpose’ was redefined to include defence purposes, infrastructure projects or for any project useful to the general public where 70% of the land has already been purchased. For acquisitions by companies, the Bill mandated that 70% of the land will have to be acquired directly from the land owners at market prices and that the government would step in under the Act to acquire the remaining 30% for the project. The Bill also aimed to provide for cases resulting in large-scale displacement. It stated that in such cases a social impact assessment study must be conducted. Tribals, forest dwellers and those with tenancy rights were also made eligible for compensation. It also mandated that the intended use of the land being acquired and the current market value of the land would have to be considered for determining compensation. The Bill lapsed when the Lok Sabha was dissolved in 2009. It is not known when the government proposes to reintroduce a Bill in the Parliament to address this issue of land acquisition. Rights of project-affected people When large projects are planned and land is acquired for those, people are often displaced from the project areas and need to be rehabilitated appropriately. The UPA-1 had introduced a Bill in the Parliament to create a legal framework for rehabilitation of project-affected people. However, the proposed Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2007, lapsed when the Lok Sabha was dissolved before the last general elections. But the UPA-1 government managed to pass a highly contested Bill that recognised the rights of scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act passed in 2006 focuses on the rights of forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and traditional forest dwellers. The Act seeks to recognise and vest forest rights in forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes with respect to forest land and their habitat. The Act mentions 13 separate rights given to forest dwellers. These include (a) living in the forest for habitation or for self-cultivation for livelihood, (b) right to own, use or dispose of minor forest produce, (c) right to protect and conserve any community resource that they have been traditionally protecting and (d) individual and community rights of habitat for primitive tribal groups. These rights have to be formally recorded/recognised by state governments. The Act also prevents any modification of forest rights or the resettlement of forest dwellers unless the Gram Sabha of the village consents to the proposal in writing. There are additional requirements to be met if developmental activities are to be undertaken in tribal dominated areas (defined as Scheduled Areas in the Constitution). The Panchayat (Extension into Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, extends the part of the Constitution providing for Panchayati Raj in rural areas to Scheduled Areas. The Act requires that government authorities consult the Panchayat or the Gram Sabha before acquiring land for development projects and for rehabilitating persons affected by such projects. At a conceptual level, there is no apparent contradiction in the applicable laws and each of the laws mentioned above appear to be necessary to ensure that there is fairness for all stakeholders involved. However, a distinction has to be made between the legal principles these laws seek to enforce, and procedural formalities that need to be complied with to be on the right side of the law. Also, a closer look at these individual laws and their implementation will reveal a number of loopholes that need to be plugged to ensure that the spirit and basic principles enshrined in each law are enforced efficiently. From the point of view of the company that intends to do business in India, all this adds up to a lot of time-consuming process. This is perhaps why the Doing Business index published annually by the World Bank group ranks India at 133 out of 183 counties in terms of ease of doing business. The challenge, going forward, is for us to strengthen processes that are fair to all stakeholders, but at the same time are not unduly burdensome on the company that seeks to make investments in the mining sector. By CV Madhukar and Anirudh Burman This was published as an article in Financial Express on September 2, 2010
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.