Role of communities in environmental decisions

The Role Of Communities In Environmental Decisions: Communities Speaking For Themselves


“...the public must be considered to have a right, analogous to a beneficial interest, in the condition of the air and water and to be able to obtain information on how far they are being degraded.”

The general public is involved in environmental law and decision making through a number of different ways. There can be direct participation in the form of local consultations on individual planning or pollution control applications, or through seeking judicial review remedies. Besides this an indirect method of participation is through the mechanism of democracy, wherein local communities elect politicians who make environmental policy and decisions.

The importance of public participation is recognised in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration:

Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities...and the opportunity to participate in decision making process. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy shall be provided.

One of the major reasons there needs to be greater role of community in making environmental decisions, is to protect the rights of indigenous people.

The rights of the indigenous people can be seen in two basic lights:

  • The right to protect and manage natural resources located on traditional indigenous lands
  • The right of citizens to live in a healthy environment.

With respect to the protection of indigenous people as a means to conserve biodiversity, international environmental law can play an important role. Many native and indigenous people have opposed government policies that permit resource exploitation on traditional lands. Because this exploitation threatens to undermine the economic and spiritual fabric of their cultures, and often results in forced migration and resettlement, the struggle to protect the environment is often a part of the struggle to protect the cultures of indigenous people.

There is a long history of public involvement in environmental decision making. Typically, participation in the planning system through local consultation on planning applications and more general participation in development planning provided plenty of opportunities for the public to comment on development proposals and more strategic issues. Somewhat paradoxically, however, it has been argued that notwithstanding this long history of public involvement in the planning system, environmental regulation has been ‘closed to public influence.' This is because, in stark contrast to the planning system, most pollution control regimes had rudimentary notification and consultation process and nature conservation decisions were almost entirely determined by experts without recourse to the general public. The reasons for this are largely concerned with the technical nature of decisions. Other factors include the close relationship between industry and the regulators, the lack of transparency in decision making and the large degree of discretion to set environmental standards. This process of change has been relatively swift with the increased participation in pollution control regimes and planning through the introduction of formal environmental impact assessment.

Thus it is clear that the importance of community participation in matters of environmental policy is extremely great.

The Importance Of Community Participation.

The rationale behind the increasing role of public participation is captured aptly in the following words:

With the increased protection of environment...States have assumed the responsibility to meet dangers and risks, which may threaten a great number of citizens and even the general public. The open landscape, the water and the air, have come to be considered common property of all, and their rational management is not only in the interest of one single individual but in the interest of all. Therefore, states have increasingly begun to recognise that, in the law of environmental protection, the traditional structures of individual participation and judicial protection of the individual are inadequate, and that the public, interested citizens and organisations ought to have the opportunity to participate in the administrative decision making process...When it is the public in whose interest environmental protection measures are taken, and when it is the public who are expected to accept and comply with those measures, the public should have the chance to develop and articulate its opinion, and to air it during the environmental decision making process.

Access to information is essential in a democracy so that citizens can exercise their rights in a meaningful manner. Increasing access to environmental information is essential as it allows for competing interests to be balanced, in the sense that the public interest suggests that access to information on the consequences of industrial activities, permits all relevant factors to be taken into account as part of the decision making process. In addition there is clear link between the provisions of environmental information and the achievement of the goal of sustainable development. First, the provision of environmental information can influence the behaviour and decisions of private individuals and companies. Making information available on wider scale can be the necessary catalyst required to change behaviours or increase effectiveness. Secondly, information can help us to understand the consequences of our current actions in terms of the legacy that is being passed on to our future generations. Other benefits of improving the mechanism of environmental information include better quality of decisions regarding environmental policies and strengthening the mechanisms of enforcement of environmental law. Furthermore greater depth of information can make communities aware of the environmental risks facing them and their members.

In India itself, many environmental laws do not contain any provisions whatsoever regarding information to public and without any information the role of communities in matters of environmental decisions concerning them remains redundant. For example let us consider the example of provision of the Water Act which states that previous consent is necessary for discharge of sewage or industrial effluents. There is no provision for publication of a consent application or even notice for an application. Thus a community might not be even aware that the river in its neighbourhood might have industrial waste in its waters. The secrecy of the process makes the following comment apt:

The people are kept in the dark throughout the process although the damage done to them may of intense degree. The industry may not, necessarily, disclose everything relevant to the officers of the state board...the inspecting personnel may not always be in a position to act in accordance with the interest of the public and in an objective manner. A provision of public scrutiny would have rationalised the process bringing relevant factors to the consideration of the inspecting personnel and the board. Such built safeguards are wanting in India.

The Benefits Of Community Participation.

Before one enumerates the various benefits of community participation it is essential for one to know the various modes of community participation. On a very general level public participation consists of attempts to influence law, policies, and individual decisions made by the government or regulatory bodies. This involves many different things but it includes being able to have access to, understand, evaluate, formulate and comment upon proposals, plans and programmes. Thus public participation can take the form of:

  • Pluralistic participation where representative bodies such as NGOs or industry associations speak on behalf of individuals.
  • Stakeholder participation where proposals which have already been formulated are transmitted to interested parties to comment upon and refine.

  • Deliberative participation which consists of ‘agreeing the ground rules ', i.e. involving the public in determining what general policies and strategies should be adopted before moving to the stage of specific proposals.

In addition participation can have different degrees of legal force. For example, in environmental impact assessment, public participation is necessary pre requirement which is pre condition of the grant of planning permission. One of the central challenges of public participation is seeking to ensure that the quality of the participation is sufficient to actively engage the public and that proper opportunity is given to respond to any consultation exercise.

This said and then, Lee and Abbot identify a number of the potential benefits of promoting public participation.

  • Improving the quality of decision.

The preamble to the Aarhus Convention emphasizes the role that public participation has to play in improving environmental decisions. It states that improved access and public participation in decision-making enhance the quality and implementation of decisions... ' This can be done through such things as the input of specific expertise held by members of the public through the elicitation of social and cultural values.

  • Environmental problem solving.

One of the ways in which competing values can be resolved is through techniques of deliberation, that is all concerned parties both governmental and community representatives ought to sit together and take a bottom-up approach in which all sides of an issue are debated in an attempt to reach a consensus on an issue.

  • Promoting environmental citizenship.

Environmental citizenship is loosely based upon the notion that individuals should take some responsibility for their own interaction with the environment. In promoting such citizenship, participation in environmental matters is crucial. Engaging the public to play an active role in environmental policy-making and raising awareness of environmental issues are central to promoting environmental citizenships.

  • Improving procedural legitimacy.

Increased involvement in decisions, access to good quality environmental information and ex post review mechanisms through such things as judicial review increases the accountability of the decision maker and makes the process more legitimate in the eyes of the public.

Thus one can clearly make out how important the role of communities is, in making decisions regarding their environment and the impact of policies on their sustenance. In India too, there have been many instances where communities have spoken up and fought for their rights. For example the Chipko movement led by Sunderlal Bahugana to preserve the indigenous trees of Uttar Pradesh. In this particular movement the local communities adopted the Gandhian principles of protest and literally tied themselves to the trees in order to prevent their lumbering. It was this action that resulted the government to take note of the environmental issues raised by the community and resulted in the government taking policy decisions keeping in mind the suggestions of the local community. Similarly the Narmada Bachao Andolan saw wide protests against the increase of the dam over the river Narmada by local communities which resulted in a massive legal battle. These instances where the communities have spoken for themselves and achieved results goes to show how important their roles really are.


In this research paper the author has tried to present the various forms of public participation or the various forms in which communities can participate in environmental decision making. The role communities play or ought to play in decision making is quite pivotal for it is the local communities that are best suited understand the repercussions or benefits of a project that aims at threatening their environment. Also it should be the choice of communities whether they wish to allow such projects to endanger their local environment in the name of development. Local communities can help governments and policy makers make informed decisions regarding questions of environmental protection. Besides this the very fact that if communities would take a keener role in decision making the very process of decision making will become more democratic and transparent, thereby ruling out possibility of corrupt officials making rash and short sighted decisions. Also if some members play a more active role in deciding environmental matters then the rest of the community's environmental conscience also increases leading to greater and deeper participation levels.

Like mentioned previously, the benefits of community participation are limitless. These include empowerment of communities in matters of governance and providing them with a sense of belonging towards their community and their environment which helps foster greater sustainability of the environment and its products.

In order to enhance the level of participation of the community, there has to be several measures that need to be taken up. These include providing locals with informational access for empowering them to make informed and rationale decisions. The government also needs to device an effective mechanism for the process interaction between policy makers and local communities for it only when both the government and the people come together then can only our dream for a sustainable healthy environment along with a good development rate will rather most definitely truly come true then.