Panchayats, European style

  • 29/09/1993

Panchayats, European style WHAT CAN you do, as a citizen of India, if someone decides to set up a power plant or a polluting factory in your neighbourhood? Probably precious little.

You could appeal to the local pollution control board, but if its bureaucrats disagree with you, you could demonstrate on the streets.

Or, you could appeal to the Supreme Court, which ruled in the early 1980s, that the Right to Life guaranteed in the Constitution includes each citizen's Right to a Clean Environment and empowers the citizen to fight to protect the environment. But, in reality, all it has done is to empower a citizen to appeal against misuse of the environment. The Indian political system still does not give much power to local communities to decide use of the environment.

In Europe, however, during the 1970s, several governments passed air and water pollution control laws and subsequently, omnibus environment protection acts. As in India, several federal governments realised that the powers to manage environment existed mainly at the provincial level. They had to amend their constitutions to allow federal governments a greater role and set uniform standards across the country.

In fact, with the political integration of Europe, the European Community now acts like a supranational government, setting environmental rules applicable to all member countries. In other words, European countries are witnessing an erosion of national sovereignty in favour of supranational governance.

At the same time, community governance has also grown in Europe. While environmental laws are formulated at the federal level, their implementation is increasingly being delegated to the lower provincial and municipal levels. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands seem to be leading the pack, with Switzerland, of course, the old master of community sovereignty.

As an instrument of conflict resolution and decision-making in the field of environment, local democracy is growing and is probably the most fascinating experiment in the North today. The South, which lost its community management systems during colonisation and in its mad rush towards modernisation, should follow it with great interest.

All this is not to say that everything is perfect in Europe. The great imperialistic nations of Britain and France still lag far behind.

Stronghold of subsidiarity

The European Community (EC) rediscovered subsidiarity after Denmark's initial vote against the Maastricht treaty. But subsidiarity has been a centuries-old, key principle of Switzerland and is defined as a constitutional arrangement that enables political matters to be settled at the lower levels of the state -- the cantons (provinces) and the local communities.

The Swiss constitution preserves "local sovereignty rights" that were common throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Swiss communities enjoy autonomy within the framework of federal and cantonal laws, especially in financial matters, land use, natural resource utilisation and environmental management. But, as in other European countries, environmental policy concerning land use, water and air quality, waste management and energy, is regulated federally but delegated to the cantons for implementation. In most cases, the cantons delegate the task to local communities, which are now supported by cantonal and by federal subsidies. But plans are being made to require local bodies to send the full bill to polluters.

Small towns and villages often establish special local bodies for wastewater or solid waste treatment. These bodies, involving as many as 50 communities with a total population ranging from 30,000 to 300,000, establish collection and treatment plants and set fees according to the polluter-pays principle. The federal Clean Air Act of 1986 sets air quality objectives and emission standards, but the latter, matching the 1983 US level, were found to be too high to reach by the target year of 1994. The federal government then delegated to cantons the task of identifying further policy measures and submitting their management plans by 1991. But most failed to do so because of a lack of political will. Zurich -- the country's largest canton -- was among the few to implement lower emission standards for non-transport sources, and these are now the standard and are known as the Zuri-Standard. The Zurich air-quality management plan reduces traffic volume on roads, eliminates traffic lanes, hikes parking fees and limits access to the city.

During the 1992 referendum on whether Switzerland should join the European Economic Area (EEA), an issue that arose was whether the European Court would brand the Zuri-Standard as a trade barrier -- a good example of how local environmental management can conflict with free-trade principles. The European Court is reviewing this issue.

An issue on which the subsidiarity principle has been misused at the federal level so as to avoid making unpopular decisions is mobility, which is subsidised heavily in Switzerland. The result is that local attempts to protect the environment create conflicts because the people targeted are often not the same as those affected by pollution.

Large projects
Projects such as nuclear power stations and highways often face local opposition in Switzerland, but the legal and political bases on which local communities express their concern differ remarkably from canton to canton. Minorities in Switzerland also enjoy political and legal rights and environmentalists utilised these legal rights to delay substantially Rail 2000, a railroad project that had been approved by a wide majority in a national referendum six years ago. In April 1993, federal authorities noted 4,000 legal objections against a proposed 150-km rail alignment under Rail 2000.

But as it will take years for the courts to clear the objections, the authorities are attempting to find a political compromise. Thus, countervailing public pressure often leads to reconsideration and streamlining of projects.

This was even more evident in a recent EC-Swiss agreement concerning transit through the canton of Uri in the central Alps. After Uri's residents made it clear they would not accept uncontrolled transit, federal authorities renegotiated the agreement. The Swiss also take tough local positions when living space is at stake. During the 1920s and 1930s, for example, power corporations wanted to build a dam that would have submerged two Uri communities. But residents and Uri authorities mounted a combined campaign against the dam and the proposal was finally abandoned.

Clearly, a dam project with a huge impact on population would not be approved in the Swiss political system.

Othmar Schwank is a Swiss scientist working with INFRAS, a think-tank for policy analysis and process management.

Small, symbolic but important

Swedish governance of 8.6 million people -- 90 per cent of whom live in cities and towns -- is conducted at the state, regional and municipal levels. In environmental matters, the state authorities are the department of environment and the national environment protection board.

Sweden's 23 regional councils deal with urban planning, defence organisation, taxes and environmental protection. They are governed by a government-appointed board of local politicians. Each council has an environment protection unit and a major task for them now is counteracting the acidification of water bodies by lining lakes and streams.

Sweden's 286 urban and rural municipalities are quite independent on such matters as local taxation and environment. Empowered by Parliament, these municipalities now control thousands of pollution sources over which they earlier had little effective authority. They also deal with the full scale of environmental problems, from reducing greenhouse gas emissions and handling small oil spills to the use of chemicals and the restoration of polluted and abandoned industrial sites.

Local governments have the power to veto environmentally harmful industries, but this power has been exercised only a few times, mainly against storage systems for nuclear and chemically hazardous wastes. Most conflicts are sought to be resolved by discussions, followed, if necessary, by fines and even prosecutions.

Local environmental units have an average staff of upto 10, including biologists, chemists and engineers. In cities like Stockholm (1.6 million inhabitants), their number is about 200, but in rural municipalities, the environmental office often consists of just one or two persons. In general, these units and their supervisory boards are regarded as a weak link in local governance.
Local veto
Although legislation provides for high environmental standards, decision-making typically considers many different aspects, just one of which is the environment. When municipalities cut expenses, environment units often suffer the most, though environment control rarely costs more than a small percentage of total expenses.

An example of local environmental governance occurred in October 1992 in Munkfors, about 300 km east of Stockholm, when local authorities sent a letter to all grocery stores warning: Stop selling harmful detergents or face prosecution. The letter, signalling a switch in environmental focus from industrial pollution to consequences of mass-consumption products, was based on a legislation requiring harmful chemical products to be substituted by less harmful products.

The Munkfors action aroused intense debate throughout Sweden and has resulted in changes in the composition of detergents. Munkfors environmental council staff member Urban Ledin explained, "We are setting standards for how local environmental councils will work during the 1990s."

Fredrik Holm is a Swedish freelance writer, specialising in environment protection and the environmental impact of consumption and consumer goods.

Pilot package

Local authorities (municipalities) in Norway have long been involved in environmental tasks, but because many projects are at the interface of various service sectors, it is often difficult to develop a common strategy.

In 1987, Norwegian authorities initiated a comprehensive programme to strengthen environmental management at the municipal level. Its underlying theme was: "Think globally, act locally." The aim of the programme was to encourage local authorities to decide which political and organisational models they would try out for environmental work, with those participating becoming eligible for, among other things, financial support.

Professional network
Ninety of Norway's 439 municipalities were chosen to participate in the programme and a professional network also was established linking municipalities and government environment agencies to assist the participants. Meanwhile, local authorities, business communities and voluntary organisations were invited to participate in a series of "environment packages" -- a coordinated scheme of state subsidies, concentrating on some of the more pollution-prone urban areas. These subsidies helped the local agencies to release considerable funds for environmental projects. An evaluation of the programme disclosed several local initiatives had raised public environmental awareness and improved natural resource management. However, this did not influence areas in which local authorities, legally or traditionally, exercised responsibility, namely, municipal sewage and waste treatment.

In March 1991, a government White Paper on environmental protection in local municipalities was issued with the objective of framing municipal environmental policy within a comprehensive national environmental policy. The White Paper underlined the necessity for local authorities to strengthen their environmental management, but left it to them to choose solutions. Also stressed was the need for local authorities to develop and initiate a comprehensive environmental policy, based on the precautionary principle of evaluating environmental consequences of projects. The white paper received widespread support from municipalities and was passed by Parliament in June 1991.

Since 1993, the government has been providing funds to strengthen environmental management by local authorities. Meanwhile, the ministry of environment is planning a review of the implications of national policy objectives and international obligations of local authorities concerning the environment.

This article was prepared from material supplied by the department of land-use planning of the Norwegian ministry of environment.

Bridge of sighs

Building bridges linking nations is a noble task but not in the case of a bridge-cum-tunnel being planned between Denmark and Sweden across the narrow Oresund strait. It has been the subject of heated debate for three years now in both countries.

Supporters of the project say though Denmark and Sweden are linked now by ferry services, the Oresund project would save travel time and stimulate economic growth by attracting European Community investment.

Opponents of the tunnel say it would restrict the flow of saline and oxygen-rich water through the narrow strait and further deplete oxygen levels in the already degraded Baltic Sea. They predict the project will increase automobile traffic and make it impossible to achieve air quality standards. Instead, they propose just a train tunnel be bored through the sea bed.

The controversy has touched every level of power in Danish governance and even the EEC. But, even though environmentalists claim success for the present, the odds are that the project will win a marginal majority in the Danish and Swedish parliaments circumventing the authority of local and regional councils.

The Oresund controversy is a striking example of how the Danish regulatory system works. In Denmark, an industrial venture has to obtain initial environmental approval at the level of any of Denmark's more than 100 municipalities and town councils. If a proposed venture, such as a big power plant, is deemed a potentially major polluter, approval must come from the county (province) level. In very rare cases that involve, for example, a natural gas pipeline, siting approval must come from the Danish ministry of environment, which issues a so-called national plan directive. Such a directive is issued most often when municipal authorities oppose a project.

For instance, a proposal exists to issue a directive to secure sites for windmills as part of the Danish national energy plan. Several municipalities object to windmills because residents complain they are noisy and a blot on the landscape. The windmill controversy is proof that even a sustainable energy project may not gain public support.

Local approval
In ordinary cases seeking environmental approval, the applicant sends details of the project to the town council, which then publishes what is called a local plan, including all these details and defining the environmental criteria and emission standards. The local plan is then reviewed at public hearings, which can last upto eight weeks, to allow opponents to file complaints.

The town council is free reject the comments or heed them and either modify or reject the project. The Danish Nature Conservation Society, a private, non-governmental organisation, can also effectively kill a project because it is empowered to take legal action to preserve the natural quality of the proposed site. This form of hearing process is also used at the county level or by way of a national plan directive.

The public or the applicant can influence the approval process by questioning the environmental criteria, which are based on guidelines from the Danish ministry of environment and have four weeks to file comments on the town council's verdict. Appeals can be made to an independent environmental complaint board, but its ruling is final.

A new feature of environmental criteria is that it can be based on the BAT (best available technology) principle. This allows local groups to demand tighter emission standards, if they can cite the existence and economic feasibility of more environmentally efficient production technologies.

A company with environmental clearance is protected in principle for eight years and many older industrial plants are improving existing facilities to obtain environmental permits. The eight-year limit can be interrupted if new scientific evidence proves the plant's processes to be more hazardous than anticipated originally. Environmental authorities would then dictate tougher terms.

Plant emission data is available to the public and violations can lead to criminal proceedings. Though the law permits imprisonment for upto two years, this has never happened.

Danish lesson
The Danish system for environmental approval and control is generally considered quite satisfactory and has been used extensively. It failed in the Oresund case because a majority in the Danish parliament argued it is a project involving another country and voted to cancel the normal hearing procedures at the local level. This caused a public outcry and Oresund opponents appealed to the EEC legislature, contending that EEC directives -- which have the power of law in member states -- were being flouted. They also cited an EEC directive on bird protection and pointed out the Oresund bridge would cut through a bird sanctuary. But commission sources say though the EC environmental commissioner was ready to sue Denmark, he was out-voted by the other commissioners.

The lesson of Oresund is that while Danish authorities have evolved an elaborate system for environmental approval and control, giving a strong voice to local interests, there is simultaneously a disturbing willingness to undermine local democracy by bypassing it when economic or industrial interests are at stake.

Jorgen Steen Nielsen is a well-known Danish environmental journalist, working with a Copenhagen newspaper.