Towards Environmental Democracy

Environmental Democracy is embedded in the notion that meaningful participation by the public is crucial to ensure that land and other natural resource decisions adequately and equitably address citizens’ interests. Rather than setting a standard for what determines a good outcome, environmental democracy sets the ideal standard for how decisions should be made.

The environmental democracy rights of access to information, public participation, and access to justice in environmental matters have attained currency as key drivers of an informed, accountable and empowered citizen. They were first identified as Principle 10 in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. At its core, environmental democracy involves three mutually reinforcing rights that, while independently relevant, they operate best in combination: for individuals to freely access information on environmental data, to participate meaningfully in decision-making, and to seek enforcement of environmental laws or remuneration for damages.

Environmental policymaking continues to deprive poor and marginalized communities of such rights, thereby diluting the value of their democratic citizenship. Because they cannot engage in policy decisions that can have enormous impacts upon their lives, such citizens are also denied the basic right of political participation. Therefore, the need to establish  a fair, equal, and inclusive global community that does not privilege certain interests over others, was felt. Here the state is fully transparent and accountable to its constituents about policy decisions that affect them and their environment, as well as provides participatory opportunities for communities to determine land and resource use.

Fundamentals Rights of Environmental Democracy

  • Access to Information- Access-to-information laws require that governments and companies make information such as environmental impact assessments, development project plans, and pollution discharges freely available to the public. By being informed, the public can engage more effectively in decision-making and hold companies and governments liable for their actions that are not in accordance with the law. Information should not simply be available, but also accessible to the public through formats they can easily understand and interpret- taking into account factors like literacy, language, readability, use of technology, etc.

Making environmental information available and freely accessible can often be the foundation for change. The United States, for example, developed the first-ever Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR)—called the Toxics Release Inventory—in 1986 following several environmental disasters. The Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) requires that certain industrial facilities annually submit data on the quantity of toxic chemicals they release. Since 1986, at least 50 other nations have developed PRTRs or implemented related programs. While the system certainly still has room for improvement, compelling corporations to make this data public has helped reduce the rate of toxic releases in the country.

  • Public Participation– Public participation improves information flow between communities and the state and/or private sector decision-makers. This exchange can help avoid unintended consequences, build support for a decision, and lead to a more equitable distribution of costs and benefits. The public should be notified at an early stage in the decision-making process and be given any information necessary to meaningfully engage. Participation is barely meaningful when the public is merely informed of an upcoming decision and is presented with no opportunity to influence it.

One of the better-known public participation processes for the environment is through Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), in which many countries require public consultations before the development of projects that will have environmental impacts. When the public is given ample notice along with the necessary information to understand and participate meaningfully, these assessments can be effective ways to safeguard against environmental harms or to ensure that adequate compensation. On the other hand, public consultations that serve only to inform of a decision that has already been made undermine public trust, reduce legitimacy and stifle the flow of important information.

  • Access to Justice – According to the world’s pre-eminent experts, Professors George (Rock) and Catherine Pring, who for more than a decade have studied the development of these institutions,” there has been a ‘world-wide explosion’ of tribunals and courts focusing on lawsuits involving environmental issues”. Successful Environmental Courts and Tribunals are better able to address the pressing, pervasive, and pernicious environmental problems that confront society.

When members of the public lack access to information and participation, they should be able to exercise a right to seek justice—such as compensation or legal action on the project. These accountability mechanisms should be independent and impartial, and ideally able to issue binding and enforceable decisions. Access to Justice is an instrument that ensures the implementation of other environmental rights.

Environmental Democracy in India

India scores 1.75 on Environmental Democracy Index (EDI), which indicates its commendable progress in enacting a strong Right to Information (RTI) law and implementing broad rights for the public to use the judicial system to seek justice on environmental matters.  India’s strong Right to Information law narrowly defines exceptions and a public interest test to allow confidential information to be released when it is in the public interest. The justice system provides clear review procedures for all administrative decisions, and for decisions taken by private actors.

Consistent with a trend across the Environmental Democracy Index results, India’s lowest pillar score was in public participation. India’s national laws require that the public be given the opportunity to engage in environmental impact assessments. India has ranked 24th out of 70 countries in the first Environmental Democracy Index that is topped by Lithuania and evaluates nations’ progress in enacting laws to promote transparency, accountability and citizen engagement in environmental decision-making.

Environmental tribunals such as India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT) are great examples of mechanisms that provide access to justice. The NGT was established in 2010 in recognition of the large number of court cases involving environmental conflicts. The tribunal has jurisdiction over all civil cases involving “substantial questions concerning the environment,” and is mandated to attempt to conclude a suit within six months of the filing date. Between May 2011 and March 2014, the Tribunal has adjudicated 393 cases.

Challenges in achieving Environmental Democracy

  • Unavailability of Information: Lack of information precludes meaningful and effective democratic decision-making. The importance of free access to information is enshrined in the International Law: Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration, to which 178 states are signatories, explicitly recognizes the Right to Environmental Information for the purpose of effective public participation. The Environmental Democracy Index (EDI) discovered in 2015 that even though 93% of 70 assessed countries have established the Right to Environmental Information, only 55% have strong safeguards to ensure that citizens enjoy affordable and convenient access to the information. Furthermore, 46% fail to maintain ambient air quality data for their capital cities.
  • Inadequate Consultation: The lack of dialogue by policymakers with the local communities which were most impacted by environmental policies further impedes meaningful public engagement. Approximately 79% of countries scored fairly or poorly for public participation in the Environmental Democracy Index. The metrics for this rating includes: establishing and enforcing laws, providing opportunities for the public to participate in environmental decision-making, making laws obligating the state to proactively seek public participation, and requiring policymakers to integrate public input into policy decisions. Even if information were readily available, a democracy cannot obtain it if states simply refuse to engage with their constituents.
  • Lack of Avenues: The lack of channels for redress of environmental injustice prevents citizens from defending their constitutional rights. Courts in 73% of Environmental Democracy Index (EDI) assessed countries provide fair, timely, and independent hearings of environmental cases, but only a few provide support for the marginalized groups. Worse, hardly 14% have the legal mechanisms that help women obtain redress when their environmental rights are violated. Ergo, not simply does mainstream environmentalism neglect the rights of the poor and marginalized, but even the state institutions fail to adequately protect the citizenry, particularly against the corporations armed with considerable litigation power.

What should be done?

  • The “Right to Know” must be embedded in both state and local law as an essential first step toward achieving environmental democracy. The “Right to Know” movement champions freedom of information laws requiring that environment-related information be made freely available to citizens. With such information, citizens would be able to participate more effectively in political decision-making, and hold corporations and states accountable for infringements upon their environmental rights. It is thus vital that this information be made available in every sense, accounting for differences in language, literacy, and technological proficiency, for instance.
  • The states must proactively and preemptively consult the citizenry on policies, inform them of avenues for greater participation, and provide opportunities for basic environmental education. These opportunities should be mostly or fully subsidized so that the citizens can participate without incurring huge costs. This would enable and further encourage citizens to engage with issues that concern their immediate environment.
  • With early and open communication, civilians can exercise democratic self-determination and self-development in a better way. This can be done by deliberating and determining the content of their social life as equal and valued members of the society. It will lead to a spontaneous and organic growth in civil society and public participation which will be facilitated by increased transparency.
  • It is also crucial that environmental lawsuits be heard by an independent and impartial body. The de-politicization of environmental jurisdiction will preserve the ability of citizens to resist and prevent environmental oppression. More environmental courts and tribunals should, hence, be established with full jurisdiction over all environmental disputes, and further be mandated to operate with haste. The efficiency of Environmental Courts and Tribunals in encouraging democratic contestation cannot be understated– in just under four years, between May 2011 and February 2014, the National Green Tribunal in India adjudicated 460 cases in India. These become especially necessary for local areas containing poor and marginalized communities who directly bear the brunts of ­­­­environmental harms.

Good environmental governance equates to good environmental democracy and justice. Minorities have suffered disproportionate environmental consequences. In a supposed free world, it is only fair that everyone should be allowed to experience both the risks and benefits associated with the environment and understand them. And whilst it is clear that environmental democracy/justice has a long way to go, it has done well so far to deal with many environmental issues globally and locally. But it is undeniably the case that small scale localised efforts are most effective. It remains to be known whether the implementation of small scale localised agendas “globally” will prove to be fruitful or not. While it has been argued that the majority of environmental issues ‘fail to show a signal’, this viewpoint is undeniably changing along with many others. In a world where we are witnessing environmental deterioration and problems at a domestic and international level, effective democracy and justice is not merely a notion but a necessity.

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Vama Parakh

Vama Parakh

Vama writes on issues regarding society, environment, psychology and health. To connect, reach out to her on LinkedIn or at her email - parakhvama01@gmail.com

Vama Parakh

Vama writes on issues regarding society, environment, psychology and health. To connect, reach out to her on LinkedIn or at her email - parakhvama01@gmail.com

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