NEW DELHI—Promoting India’s 22 regional languages is among the key assurances of the Narendra Modi government’s new National Education Policy 2020. Yet, just a week prior to announcing this policy, the government’s environment ministry told the Karnataka High Court that it was against conducting public consultation in these languages for a proposed new law for environment clearance.
The Prakash Javadekar-led ministry had been directed to conduct public consultation for the proposed law in the 22 regional languages, called eight schedule languages, by the Delhi High Court on June 30 in a judgment.
Weeks later, while responding to an order by the Karnataka High Court which is also in favour of conducting public consultation in regional languages for the proposed law, the environment ministry filed a written ‘statement of objections’ against what the two high courts had asked it to do. Through this statement, the environment ministry not only went back on its earlier position in favour of conducting public consultation in regional languages, it also disclosed that it had appealed against the Delhi High Court judgment in the Supreme Court.
This statement revealed the specific legal grounds cited by the environment ministry in its Supreme Court appeal, thereby showing how stridently opposed it is to the idea of conducting public consultation in regional languages.
One of the grounds for not translating the new draft law in regional languages, the ministry claimed in the statement, is that it would “create a big hurdle for the Union of India to perform its normal legislative and administrative function on account of inherent procedural and administrative difficulties” involved in translation. It did not explain what this meant.
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A closer look at the other grounds in the Supreme Court appeal show a strong preference of the ministry to conduct public consultation for the proposed national law only in Hindi and English despite orders from both the Karnataka and Delhi High Courts to the contrary.
The grounds also contain a detailed description of the adverse consequences that the ministry expects to face if it is obliged to conduct public consultations for the new draft law in the languages mentioned in the eight schedule.
Conducting public consultations in these languages for the far reaching proposed national law—which is officially called the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020—could be a democratic and inclusive exercise in law making. This is especially true since many of India’s mega-projects, which are legally obligated to undergo the EIA process, are located in remote regions where few English or Hindi speakers reside.
Yet rather than embrace its own rhetoric, the Modi government chose to cite the rule book in the courts to say that it is not obliged to conduct public consultations in any languages other than Hindi and English.
HuffPost India has written to environment minister Prakash Javadekar and environment secretary R P Gupta to understand why the ministry first accepted and then, going back on this position, chose to challenge the Delhi HC judgment in the Apex court. This report will be updated if a response is received from them.
WHAT THE NATIONAL EDUCATION POLICY PROMISES
The National Education Policy 2020 talks a big talk on Indian languages. Speaking specifically about the eight schedule languages, the policy lays out a detailed, broad-based plan to popularise their usage in a variety of fields in addition to education. “For each of the languages mentioned in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India, Academies will be established consisting of some of the greatest scholars and native speakers to determine simple yet accurate vocabulary for the latest concepts, and to release the latest dictionaries on a regular basis (analogous to the successful efforts for many other languages around the world),” the policy says.
“The Academies would also consult with each other, and in some cases take the best suggestions from the public, in order to construct these dictionaries attempting to adopt common words whenever possible. These dictionaries would be widely disseminated, for use in education, journalism, writing, speechmaking, and beyond, and would be available on the web as well as in book form.” Clearly, the idea of promoting the eight schedule languages is not limited to the education sector for multiple purposes.
Yet when it comes to popularising and receiving public feedback about a controversial new law, in this case the draft EIA 2020, the government has taken a different tack. The environment ministry’s ‘statement of objections’ reveals that it has mentioned 11 specific legal grounds in its Supreme Court appeal opposing the Delhi HC direction to translate the new proposed law into Schedule 8 languages for public consultations.
LEGAL GROUNDS CITED BY MOEF&CC IN SUPREME COURT APPEAL
An analysis by HuffPost India of these grounds shows the ministry broadly argued two things:
First, present laws and constitutional provisions make it obligatory for the ministry to carry out the public consultation only in Hindi and English.
And second, that if it complies with the Delhi High Court judgment, particularly the aspect relating to translation of the draft law in 22 languages, this could create problems for the central government in multiple legal and administrative ways.
For instance, one of the grounds cited by the environment ministry in its appeal in the SC for not following the Delhi HC judgment is that it “would lead to innumerable cases before the court of law challenging all the notification and other official releases issued by the Union of India”. Presently, it pointed out, these notifications and releases are only in official languages namely Hindi and English.
Further, another ground states that, complying with the Delhi HC judgment’s direction about translation in 22 languages “may become a precedent and lead to operational difficulty in discharging the functions of the government.” It did not explain exactly what it meant ‘operational difficulty’ and how it could be created by complying with the judgment.
This suggests the government is worried about this setting an example for other policies and proposed laws when they undergo the legally mandated public consultation process. The other related ground cited in the appeal says “granting such reliefs shall tantamount to opening floodgates of numerous litigation and shall pose an obstacle to the functioning of the Government.”
The ministry has also cited provisions of the Official Languages Act and Articles 343 and 346 of the Indian constitution to insist upon using only Hindi and English as languages for carrying out the public consultation process.
HuffPost India has described these in detail in a previous report here. Advocate Prince Isac, representing an environmental group seeking consultation in regional languages through its petition in the Karnataka HC, had told this reporter previously that the ministry was conflating languages used for conduct of official business by governments with consultations led by governments with the public for law making.
“The official languages are only restricted for inter-communication between the states and central government. So that is for the purpose of administration, and not for the purpose of making the people understand. If you want to make the people participate in this procedure, then you will have to communicate the thing in a manner in which the people know,” Isac said.
The Karnataka and Delhi High Courts have agreed with concerns raised by environment activists that, for a law that has such wide ramifications, a genuine broad-based public consultation is not possible unless more time and translations in more languages are provided to the people to allow them to send feedback about the law. On August 5, the Karnataka HC will give its decision on whether the draft law should be stayed till a comprehensive public consultation in regional languages is conducted by the government.