Enviromental clearances: Safeguards being given short shrift

  • Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jul 30, 2015 15:21 IST

Juliet of Romeo and Juliet fame asked ‘What’s in a name’? Now it seems environment minister Prakash Javadekar wants to add to that question to ask: “What’s in a word?”

According to a news report, the minister wants subtle (just that they are not subtle) changes in official communication that deal with the clearance of projects: From now on, the word ‘clearance’ will be replaced by ‘approval with adequate environmental safeguards’ and the word ‘diversion’ by ‘reforestation’. Asked about the changes, Mr Javadekar said that this was all about thinking “positive and using the right expression”.

The “right expression”, however, cannot veil the fact that India’s forest cover is not all that it is made out to be in the official documents and that the quality of reforestation has not been up to the mark. Government documents claim a steady increase in the country’s forest turf since 1999, but it may be missing the wood for the trees.

Records show the country may have lost close to 10.6 million hectares, or about 70 times Delhi’s geographical area, of original forests between 1999 and 2013. The State of the Forest Report 2013 says dense forests are degrading into scrub or sparsely covered forest areas in many states.

Another potential worry: The Himalayan north-eastern region, which holds one-fourth of the country’s forests, has seen a decline of forest cover. While reforestation is a must, once the original mixed forests go, they are usually replaced with commercial plantations, which are not as bio-diverse as natural forests.

A paper published by the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru suggests that an almost seven-million-hectare recorded increase in forest cover between 1997 and 2011 could be accounted for by an increase in commercial plantations.

Leave aside semantics, in many cases, the government is bypassing laws to clear (approval with adequate environmental safeguards, in the new language) projects.

Take, for example, the Polavaram dam case. Without completing the statutory public hearings in Odisha and Chhattisgarh (both affected by the dam), Mr Javadekar, at the request of Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, an ally of the BJP, and without informing the two states, has allowed its construction to resume.

It seems that the minister is not only changing terminologies but is ready to go against the set procedures, if he needs to.

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