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This article is written by Atindriyo Chakrabarty.

Can Environmental Lawyers Make Money? – Dispelling a Stigma

You will hear a stigma about environmental lawyering that there is no money in it. In the Indian context, this stigma arises because three out of the four benches of the National Green Tribunal where environmental matters are fought have been hearing matters only for two hours per day and that too twice a week ever since 2018. When you add this with the global reality that pro-environmental lawyering has always been associated with activism and non-profit based organizations, you realize wherefrom this stigma emanates.

Of course these days you will find many corporations spending some money on the protection of the environment out of their corporate social responsibility and other budgetary allocations. At times, especially in cases of private companies that operate mines, factories etc or do infrastructure and real estate development work, they also do this as a part of their environmental compliances.

Development of environmental understanding in the Indian legal context owe its origin to India’s international sovereign obligation as signatories to international legal instruments such as the Stockholm Declaration 1972, the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, 1972, the Rio Earth Summit, 1992, the Kyoto Protocol 2008 with Doha Amendment 2012 and Paris Agreement on Climate Change, 2016. These commitments have led to the framing of multiple laws such as the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981, Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972, Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, Public Liability Insurance Act 1991, Biological Diversity Act 2002, National Green Tribunal Act 2010 and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The last-mentioned law is an umbrella legislation under which several pro-environment notifications such as the E-Waste (Management) Rules 2016, Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules 2016, Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016; Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016; Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules 2016; Hazardous and Other Waste (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules 2016, Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules 1989,  the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification 2019 and the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006 have been framed.

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Alongside, judicial activism of the 1980s and 1990s has led to several sound environmentally protective principles being recognized within the environmental legal structure of India. For example, the right to ‘sustainable development’, a concept that was recognized in international law through Agenda 21 of the Rio Declaration of 1992, was made a Fundamental Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution through the Supreme Court Judgment in Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum vs. Union of India, AIR 1996 SC 271. Similarly, UN Report “Our Common Future”, popularly known as ‘Brundtland Report’, 1987 underlined the concept of ‘intergenerational equity’ as an environmental conservation principle and the same was made a part of Indian environmental law and jurisprudence by the Supreme Court Judgment of T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India and Ors, (2006) 5 SCC 28.

Thus, you will find that a sound and thorough legal framework exists surrounding the environmental law in India. Likewise, a regulatory structure in these regards is also in place. The state-level departments of environment and the central Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF & CC), the state and the central pollution control boards (SPCB and CPCB), along with various ground level authorities such as local bodies like Panchayats, Municipalities and Municipal Corporations, along with  special bodies which exists both at national levels (such as the National Tiger Conservation Authority) and ground levels (Such as the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority for the protected East Kolkata Wetlands of West Bengal). Licenses and permits from such authorities are absolutely essential for any agency or body corporate seeking to engage in activities that are bound to affect the environment. For example, if someone wishes to make a construction in a forest or even a non-forest area, permission for felling trees along with necessary fees for facilitating afforestation are to be sought from and paid to respectively from the relevant Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Regional Forest Officer (RFO) and even, in many area-specific instances, from the local bodies such as the Gram Panchayat of appropriate administrative jurisdiction.

Furthermore, even the states are empowered to make laws on environment and environmental issues under Schedule VII List III (Concurrent List) of the Constitution of India. Thus, many states have their own laws touching upon issues such as Air (including Noise) and Water Pollution, Trees and Forests, Animal Protection and Conservation etc. Along with the laws, there are multiple national and state-level policies in place in India that seek the address environmental issues.

Thus, with such a structured and detailed legal regime that India has on the environment and environmental issues, it cannot be anything but a misconception that one cannot be a financially successful environmental lawyer in this country. It is true that a young and fledgling environmental lawyer, at the onset of his, her or their career, does make less money than, say, a corporate lawyer in a top-tier law firm. Nonetheless, the stigma that there is no money in environmental lawyering is merely a prima facie understanding and does not stand to reason when you dig even a tad deeper.    

Now that we have established that it is possible to have a successful career in environmental lawyering given the plethora of laws and policies and given further the structured outlay of the environmental legal regime of India, let us now explore the avenues through which you can make money in India is an environmental lawyer:

Five ways in which you can flourish in a successful environmental legal practice.  

1. Give compliance-based legal services including consultancy to companies: 

Multiple Regulatory Enforcements are deemed compulsory by the regulatory authorities. For example, the central and various state control boards have emission standards that are to be continually maintained and updated by industrial units in operation. Again, every project, as determinable by the EIA Notification 2006, have to submit a EIA Report and an Environment Management Plan (EMP), along with other compliance documents such as a Conceptual Note, to the clearing authority, which can either by the MoEF & CC or the state environment impact assessment authorities (SEIAA) depending on the nature of the project. It is based on such applications that Environmental Clearance (EC) is granted by such authority. The EC contains certain conditions drawn up in the form of Terms of Reference (ToR) which the project proponents must adhere to and update regular compliance reports of, in absence of which their project operations become bad in law. You may refer to the Office Memorandum on Standardization of EC Conditions under the EIA Notification passed by the MoEF & CC on January 2019 to see how standard EC ToRs look like. Another example of compliance requirements can be found in the Notification passed in November 2018 by the said ministry that tabulates the environmental compliances that are necessary for the local bodies to give occupation/completion certificates to real estate projects. Many of these notifications are fairly new. Many relatively older notifications and laws are also being continually amended. For instance, the CRZ Notification, 2011 had, earlier on in 2019, been replaced by a new notification bearing the same name but with altered rules and structures. Above    

Thus, companies which are often referred to as Project Proponents and often as User Agencies in environmental regulatory terminology, require a host of compliances in terms of environmental law, for which they are often in need of environmental legal experts. You may track such companies down, send applications and forced applications, network with relevant office bearers of such companies and offer your services. After some initial phase of establishing solidified contacts, you can get one or many nice deals as an environmental lawyer in charge of ensuring that their environmental diligences are met with. This method is bound to bear fruit if you try in all sincerity. So, go ahead, make your day as a successful environmental lawyer through this process. If you do indeed seek to make a career out of environmental legal practice, you will not regret this.  

2. Become empanelled as a state lawyer who represent environmental authorities such as the MoEF & CC:

As we discussed in the previous section, multiple regulatory agencies vis a vis environmental law and administration exists in India. This includes the MoEF & CC, the environment and forest departments of the states, the CPCB, the SPCBs, various environmental protection and conservation authorities such as the Central Groundwater Authority and the National Tiger Conservation Authority and so many more. Cumulatively, they are in charge of the environmental legal regime in India. They all need lawyers. Becoming an empanelled lawyer, or even one whose services are taken on retainership based contracts, with such authorities can be one way to go.

A basic search, as a practicing advocate, would make you figure out how to become a lawyer for such places. Regular visits to the National Green Tribunal for networking and conversations with the different lawyers who appear for such regulatory authorities in matters before the Tribunal is bound to give you ideas on how to facilitate this process and kickstart your career as a hotshot environmental legal eagle.   

3. Begin your career as a junior to a senior advocate who has a regular practice before the NGT:

Here, you take the conventional route. Join a senior advocate’s chamber. However, instead of being attached with a lawyer who practices all kinds of law or civil or criminal laws, focus on being attached with one whose practice is based, if not exclusively, at least significantly with the environmental legal sector. The best place to find such an advocate is the National Green Tribunal.

The NGT has a total of four benches in India – the Southern Zone Bench in Chennai, the Western Zone Bench in Pune, the Central Zone Bench in Bhopal and the Northern and Principal Bench in New Delhi. Many advocates earn their livelihood by practicing before one or more of these benches. If you apply to them and join them as a chamber junior, it can be a good place to begin to learn the ropes on environmental law and practice.

It is true that you will not be able to not make a lot of money at the initial stage of your career if you take this route. However, with time and perseverance, you will be able to develop your own network and clientele, hone your skills and start establishing your independent practice for an enriching and fulfilling career as an environmental lawyer. 

4. Join a prominent environmental NGO as a lawyer:

There are many NGOs in India that operate exclusively in the environment sector. Such NGOs exist at national, state as well as regional levels. Some of the most prominent NGOs in this regard are Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action, Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment, Samatha Cooperative, Kalpavriksh Foundation, Center for Science and Environment, the Development Alternatives Group, the environmental cell of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, Narmada Bachao Andolan etc. Even prominent international organizations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and Greenpeace International have their offices in India. A simple online search can yield multiple results in this regard and you can obtain their contact details online.

The reason why such NGOs have thrived is that there are multiple funds and grants both nationally and internationally available in the environmental protection and conservation sector. Almost all such NGOs, especially the bigger ones, either employ lawyers or take services from environmental legal professionals.

You can apply to one or more such NGOs and offer your services as an advocate. With some ambition and industriousness, you can also establish your own NGO to work on legal issues in the environmental sector. The process is simple. All you need is to register your association. You can register it as a trust or a society, or even as a not for profit Company under the Companies Act, 2013. Or you may begin as a voluntary organization and subsequently become an incorporated one. Under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 (FCRA), for the first three years, you will only be able to look for funds and grants nationally. After three years of profile building and operation, you can also apply to the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, for certification under the FCRA, and scale up into a big NGO.   

Working as an environmental lawyer with an NGO, or as a founding member of an NGO, can be a lucrative career option – one where you will be able to make a meaningful contribution to the environment and ecosystem and earn a decent living at the same time.

5. Offer legal services including consultation to environmental NGOs:

This is connected with the previous point. However, instead of joining such an environmental NGO as an employee or being a founder of one, you can also become a lawyer offering your services to them. Many NGOs, instead of employing lawyers directly, take services from practicing lawyers on a case to case basis. There lies the trick. You have to visit the NGT on a regular basis and stay in touch with environmental lawyers who are thus roped in on a case to case basis to get an idea of how to make such and similar NGOs approach you to take up their cases and legal concerns.

Here, you need to be tactful. The idea is not to compete with such lawyers but to cooperate and build up a profession based on peer support from similar professionals. With perseverance, this can be accomplished and you can be well on your way to being a successful environmental lawyer in India.    

Thus, the assumption that environmental lawyering does not fetch money in India is incorrect. Of course, you need to be practical and focused. You may not be able to make as much money as a corporate lawyer in the initial phases. However, once you focus your attention and streamline your efforts towards developing a successful career as an environmental lawyer, with persistence and perseverance, you will be able to develop yourself as a highly successful environmental lawyer. For this, other than following one or more of the career-trajectories highlighted above, you need a strong foundational understanding of environmental law and governance system of the country and be well versed with the laws that collectively create the structure of this system.

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