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Policy | The privacy of environmental crimes

The poor application of techno-governance in the environmental domain can be traced to narratives that posit ‘environment protection’ in opposition to ‘development’, and relegate the former to a lower priority in statecraft.

July 29, 2019 / 04:16 PM IST
Representative Image

Representative Image

Aarthi Sridhar

The past decade has witnessed a global rise in digital governance and crime control mediated by mass surveillance technologies. India too has adopted techno-systems such as the Lawful Intercept and Monitoring (LIM) and the Central Monitoring System (CMS) among others over the last decade. Whether such monitoring violates individual privacy is being debated and raises interesting questions on the limits of citizen privacy.

One view argues that absolute privacy cannot be invoked by an individual or a (state) body, particularly for matters that are in the domain of public good. The Right to Information (RTI) law hinges on such a principle, recognising rights of citizens to know certain aspects of state functioning.

In the domain of ‘development’, the State argued that its Unique Identity scheme or Aadhaar enables monitoring and surveillance to combat corruption; putatively for improved provisioning of developmental public goods. The Supreme Court upheld Aadhaar’s constitutional validity claiming that it did not violate privacy.

However, when it comes to environmental public goods, there is insufficient state surveillance and data available for governmental or public scrutiny. The minimal environmental data generated morphs into quasi-private information in the possession of a maze of regulatory agencies and institutions. India’s data revolution has mostly overlooked environmental public goods, providing very poor data to assess and counter environmental crimes.

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In the wake of the devastation caused by the 2018 Kerala floods, particularly to residents of the backwater city, Kochi, in May the Supreme Court of India ordered the demolition of five multistoried apartments which violated the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 2011. On July 10, the court dismissed review petitions filed by the builders, leaving residents and flat owners distraught. The decision arose from the finding that the land was incorrectly accorded clearance since it actually stood in the CRZ-III zone (a more sensitive category with greater building restrictions) than CRZ-II as the clearance claimed.

Coastal Zone Management Plans are meant to show what category of land each survey number falls under, and further, these maps are to be made public. The clearance conditions are meant to be public to facilitate not just monitoring and compliance after project construction, but to empower investors, citizens, and parties concerned with information prior to investment or project clearance.

The ₹14,000 crore Mumbai coastal road project is the latest to draw the ire of the Bombay High Court which axed its CRZ clearance. The apex court upheld this decision noting that the project was cleared without proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and that it violated several environmental norms.

In both these cases, project authorities accorded clearance without examining the official maps — when even a simple Google Earth search would show the distances from the high tide, prompting questions about the property’s zonation. What prevents regulatory authorities from generating and disseminating digital maps that can be openly scrutinised by its climate vulnerable citizens to ensure themselves public goods and constitutionally guaranteed rights?

No known efforts have been made to ensure that promoters of large projects invest in technologies that enable transparent tracking of environmental clearance conditions. Neither have digital technologies been creatively used to solicit information on violations of norms and standards. None of the numerous GIS-based technological applications are being used to transparently revise maps of the Coastal Regulation Zone Plans, to enhance the monitoring of effluent discharge into water bodies or to even place updated and approved Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP) maps on websites of state governments, despite multiple court directives and legal mandates.

The poor application of techno-governance in the environmental domain can be traced to narratives that posit ‘environment protection’ in opposition to ‘development’, and relegate the former to a lower priority in statecraft. A simple perusal of the websites of the coastal states shows that not all of them have their coastal zone maps online, and not all maps are even useable by citizens since they don’t show which zones each survey number falls in. Such information is meant to be in the public domain and pertains to the environment — a public good central to our survival.

Whose privacy concerns are protected when digital governance is deflected away from prospective environmental crimes?

Aarthi Sridhar researches socio-legal issues and is associated with Dakshin Foundation. Views expressed here are personal.
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