India's ailing economy has found a new scapegoat - environment and forests. For most things that go wrong these days, from power shortage to slow growth, the blame is tossed at the door of the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF), the paradigm being that forests, wildlife and green laws are hurdles to development.
So much so, that a Group of Ministers established to 'rationalise' coal mining in forests recommended scrapping 'no-go' areas and public hearings. The latest salvo is the National Investment Board (NIB), a proposal to boost 'investor sentiment'. The NIB is envisaged to ensure that mega projects sail through, bypassing statutory procedures, laws and without bothering about their environmental and social impacts.
Why is India bending over backwards to accommodate large investors and sidestep democratic tenets, when nowhere in the world are key considerations like public health, environment and biodiversity ignored in establishing projects?
More importantly, is there any basis to the hysteria that the 'new Licence Raj' is holding up growth? Is the MoEF 'activist'? Much of this thinking started during the regime of Jairam Ramesh, perceived to be a 'green' minister. Here's reality: during Ramesh's tenure, (June 2009-11), over 95% of projects sailed through. A recent release by the MoEF shows that 1,126 proposals involving diversion of 15, 639 hectares of forest land were cleared in the year following July 2011.
Another contentious issue was the 'go-no-go' for mining in forest areas, a concept introduced at the insistence of the coal ministry. Pressure from various quarters ended in the MoEF conceding over 80% 'no-go' forests to mining, including the ecologically fragile Hasdeo-Anand in Chhattisgarh and Chiriya in Saranda - the world's largest, finest Sal forest that still sees the occasional tiger.
Another myth is that coal shortage - due to forest concerns - has brought the economy to its knees. The fact is that in all key sectors viz power, coal, steel, cement clearances given exceed targets. For example, and I quote here from a letter written by the minster for environment and forests Jayanthi Natarajan to the prime minister, "In the 11th plan period till August 2011, the MoEF has granted environmental clearances to 181 coal mines with a combined capacity of 583 million tonnes per annum, and forest clearances to 113 mines giving away 26,000 hectares of forest land." These clearances are expected to double our coal capacity. Similarly, the 11th and 12th Five Year Plans target 1,50,000 MW of additional thermal power capacity to be created and set up by 2017. Between 2006-August 2011, clearances were granted for 2,10,000 MW of thermal power capacity. Do your math. That's 60,000 MW or 40% in excess of what has been proposed till 2017.
Our capacity in energy and coal lies under or unutilised, even as project proponents continue to seek clearances for new ventures, as this gives them access to valuable resources: land, minerals and water.
How else would you explain that while there is a clamour for investment in new projects, the shortfall for investment in electricity transmission (India loses nearly 40% electricity to inefficient transmission) is a staggering Rs. 4,00,000 crore? It isn't that infrastructure and industry are being thwarted; on the contrary, forest and environmental concerns are being systematically diluted. We need to strengthen, not weaken green regulations. Not just to save 'sundry animals', as a bureaucrat recently suggested, but for our ecological, and economic security.
Mining belts are hell-holes, with people living there in subhuman conditions. And forests are not a sum of the minerals that lie underneath - a treasury open to loot. They nourish and nurture our rivers and soils, influence the monsoons, sequester carbon and are repositories of biodiversity. India has the challenging task of achieving sustained growth without irretrievably damaging natural resources on which depends our existence - water, clean air, fertile soil. It's a task that concerns us all, and demands our collective support.
Prerna Bindra is member, National Board of Wildlife
The views expressed by the author are personal