This is a process that actually began with the UPA government, which replaced the feisty environment minister Jairam Ramesh with the more pliant Jayanthi Natarajan.
With industry lobbies still crying wolf, she too made way for Veerappa Moily, the petroleum and natural gas minister, without the UPA seeing anything contradictory in someone holding both those responsibilities.
In just a month, Moily issued permits for a hundred projects worth $40 billion which had been stuck, including the $12.6 billion Posco steel plant in Orissa — the country’s single-biggest foreign direct investment — that was blocked since 2005. In 2010, Ramesh had ordered the Orissa government to halt land acquisition because the project violated the Forest Rights Act. As of this July, projects worth Rs. 227 billion were stalled in the country.
Even after the poll debacle, the Congress government in Maharashtra is trying to water down regulations, mindful that it may have only few months left in power. The water resources (formerly irrigation) department has permitted construction worth Rs. 500 crore on the Krishna Marathwada lift irrigation scheme over seven years without environmental clearances.
It has feebly assured the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) that it will behave in future.
The MoEF is itself going easy on irrigation projects. Those below 2,000 hectares need not apply for clearances any longer, while those below 10,000 hectares can be sanctioned by state governments.
Since Mumbai is any politician’s golden goose, the state government has asked the MoEF to drastically revise the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules. At present, 38% of the city’s 437 sq km falls in the CRZ II belt, where a promoter can construct space 1.33 times the size of the plot the building occupies.
This can go up to 4 times with various incentives, which amounts to ‘open sesame’ for builders. Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar may grant this request, since a BJP-Shiv Sena government is virtually assured in Maharashtra later this year.
Javadekar has been working overtime to dilute regulations. He has ensured that mines which extract less than 16 million tonnes of coal a year and want to increase their output by half no longer have to hold a public hearing. The government’s appeal to mine owners to accept public scrutiny and protect the environment does not reassure anyone.
Similarly, gram sabhas need not be consulted before companies begin prospecting in forests and diverting land to industrial use, which waters down the Forest Rights Act.
Reforesting lands which have been damaged by such use is also no longer required. Instead of tribal village councils certifying that their rights had been settled before consenting to projects, the district administration is empowered to do so, regardless of the number of villages displaced by the projects.
The NDA government has amended the environment assessment notification of 2006 and now allows promoters of projects up to a certain size to approach state governments, rather than the Centre. As one can see from Maharashtra’s example, states are more venal in granting such exemptions, since they act in collusion with crony capitalists and corrupt politicians.
The MoEF is contemplating clipping the wings of the National Green Tribunal, which was set up during the UPA regime and is the only agency below the Supreme Court which examines cases relating to environment and forests.
It is headed by a retired Supreme Court or high court judge, with up to 20 experts matching the number of judicial members. Till now, however, it has never been fully staffed. Worryingly, there is a move to convert the judicial tribunal into an administrative body under the ministry itself, which will rob the agency of its independence and render it toothless.
Incidentally, the tribunal had recently held that it was illegal to appoint retired bureaucrats to chair statutory expert appraisal committees that review environmental clearances.
In fact, Javadekar has gone one step further by appointing environment secretary V Rajagopalan, who will retire at the end of this month, to chair the National Biodiversity Authority. Moily had turned down his appointment, citing conflict of interest that amounted to the bureaucrat virtually overseeing his own appointment, as a news report put it.
According to the Biodiversity Act of 2002, which regulates the sustainable use of biological resources and equitable sharing of rights, the authority should be headed by an eminent expert in the field.
The National Wildlife Board’s standing committee, which just cleared most of 140 stalled projects in around 80 parks, sanctuaries and tiger reserves, has one only wildlife expert, R Sukumar, instead of the mandatory eight.
Its remit is to scrutinise all projects that fall within the boundaries of these protected areas as well as a 10-km radius. Not surprisingly, there are two representatives from Gujarat — one a retired forest official and the other from the Gujarat Ecological Education and Research Foundation, an undistinguished state government body. Huge infrastructure projects have been cleared by the board, like the 520 MW Teesta IV dam in Sikkim, which the committee had previously unanimously rejected, pointing to other dams in the state which were illegal.
Even this litany is incomplete without mentioning how the Land Acquisition Act, a flagship UPA law, is being sought to be reviewed, while field trials of genetically modified crops may be permitted.
The outcome is that all mining, industrial and related projects will be given the green signal, causing widespread distress to those who pay the price of such unmonitored growth.
This indicates that the NDA is insensitive to the millions, particularly in central India, who will be displaced or otherwise penalised in the name of development.
(Darryl D’Monte is chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India. The views expressed by the author are personal.)