Kathmandu– On 12th May, the Ministry of Forest and Environment registered a bill in the parliament to amend and integrate the existing Environment Protection Act (EPA) of Nepal. But the environmental experts, professionals, scientists and practitioners expressed their concern regarding some of the provisions in the bill that is supposed to replace the Environment Protection Act of Nepal 1996. The major concern is with the provision that the federal and province government can appoint any government officer as an environmental inspector to monitor the effective implementation of activities, mandated by the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, for monitoring and supervision of the effective enforcement of the pollution control and environmental protection standards. They argue that all government officers do not have technical knowledge and capacity for environmental monitoring and management which may exacerbate the current trend of environmental degradation in Nepal and, thus, this provision should be amended. However, the amendment will only take place if an amendment to that bill is offered by any Member of the Parliament and supported by the majority. Fortunately, the door is now open for registering the amendments as the proposal to rethink on the provisions of this bill has been passed by the majority today.
Considering the current status of environmental democracy in Nepal, the concern raised by environmentalists regarding this bill sounds reasonable, and the amendment is necessary to ensure the right of all citizen to live in a clean and healthy environment as mandated by the Constitution of Nepal. Environmental democracy is about preserving the health of the community and environment and is rooted in the idea that meaningful public participation ensures fair and equitable resource use. It is based on three fundamental and mutually reinforcing rights: access to information on environmental quality and problems, meaningful participation in decision-making, and the ability to demand the enforcement of environmental laws or compensation for damages.
An index-based measurement of environmental democracy developed by The Access Initiative and The World Resource Institute ranks Nepal on 65th position and shows that Nepal is doing well in justice pillar but poor in transparency and public participation. For instance, people have the right to access to environmental information but the government is not obliged to make the information available to the public. Similarly, the environmental law provides an opportunity for the public to have their say in the environmental decision making, but the public input is seldom taken into account.
The government can strengthen all three pillars of environmental democracy only if it has sufficient human resources that have the ability to generate data on environmental quality and problems, provide solution to them, fairly engage people in environmental decision making and have strong science-based knowledge on the possible loss and damage incurred by the environmental problems. This cannot be expected from a general government officer. Thus, when there are already 19 environmental inspectors from technical background in place at the Department of Environment appointed through the Public Service Commission, the proposed bill should have taken this opportunity to expand the number of such technical human resources to be deployed at provincial and local level for the protection of the community and environmental health.
It has been almost two decades when Environmental Science, Engineering or Management courses have been introduced in the academia of Nepal. Every year about 300- 400 environmental graduates are out in the market in search of a job. The government should harness the capacity and skills of these human resources for environmental protection and management promoting the culture of “right people in the right place”. If this bill is passed in its current form, not only will it make the environmental sector a mess but also creates a situation of brain drain for environmental graduates of Nepal.
Hitherto, the Ministry of Forest and Environment doesn’t have a single environmental expert at the ministry to look critically at the environmental issues. Therefore, EIA has just become a formality which has been reflected by the EIA report of Nijgad and Chandragiri Hills. The provision of the EIA and IEE has been taken as an anti-development tool as the ministry takes quite a long time to approve the EIA reports and there are cases where even the national priority projects have been affected by this process. Had there been adequate environmental experts at the ministry, the process would be faster, monitoring would be more effective and the development works would be more sustainable. However, the current bill doesn’t seem to address this shortcoming.
It is the environmental experts and professionals who should be given the role to assess and monitor the development works for any environmental impact and supervision of the effective enforcement of the pollution control and environmental protection standards. However, it is equally important to bear in mind that many times in the past, the quality of the EIA, other assessment reports, and performance of environmental experts have been questioned. The government can ensure quality control by opening the door through this bill for formation of the of Environmental Council which could be in the model of Nepal Medical or Engineering Council that would be responsible for determining and assessing the minimum qualifications and standards of the environmental professionals as well as monitoring of this profession and environment education in the country.
It is a welcome step that the bill has mainstreamed environment protection into federal structures, strengthened the roles and responsibilities of Department of Environment, integrated climate change adaptation and mitigation in the legal framework for the first time and is comprehensive compared to the act enforced in 1996. Yet, provision regarding institutional development at all three tiers of government is lagging in the bill. Environmental justice, public participation in environmental decision-making, effective law enforcement, and accountability for solving environmental problems will be ensured only through the decentralized institution with adequate technical human resources. Therefore, the amendment of the registered bill is inevitable to institutionalize environmental democracy in Nepal.