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It’s all about control over land and water

ht-view Updated: Dec 25, 2013 00:26 IST
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What does it say of a government where environment ministers are eased off, apparently for doing their job? Jayanthi Natarajan’s predecessor, Jairam Ramesh was dubbed as Mr Green, and Natarajan is reported to have created a hostile environment – for the industry. Both, or rather the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), which they represented, were viewed as hurdles, and as pointed out by a leading national daily, ‘the PMO responded, removing Jayanthi roadblock’, though of course, official statements stated differently.

First, this is not a commentary on the efficacy — or otherwise — of any particular minister(s), but a reality check on the myth of environment being a hurdle to growth, and of late, even contributing to a electoral drubbing.

Since 2004, reports a leading national daily, the government has given clearances for the diversion of no less than six lakh hectares (ha) of forests (over a third for mining), while the diversion of only 14,000 ha was rejected. The rate of clearances granted has accelerated by the year. An analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment revealed that this year, till April, the MoEF’s rate of granting clearances for forest land diversion increased by 42%, while that of rejecting projects nosedived to a mere 3.5%. In the first three months of this year, the MoEF’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) allowed the diversion of about 15,000 ha of forest land, just a little less than the total forest land diverted in 2012.

Many such clearances not only sidestep environment, forest and wildlife concerns, but also regulatory and mandatory procedures. One example is the FAC nod for mining 1,300 ha in Orissa to Mahanadi Coalfields Limited despite the fact that the company was violating the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The committee itself had noted earlier that 586 ha were already being mined without obtaining the mandatory approvals. Not just accelerated clearances but rules that safeguarded forests and upheld coastal regulations were diluted, wildlife concerns thwarted as in the case of opening up Saranda — a prime elephant habitat — for mining.

Pressure from various quarters ended in the MoEF conceding about 85% ‘no-go’ forests to mining. It has been scrapped now, with a new formula ‘inviolate areas’, in place, which too, is reportedly being whittled down, if not scuttled.

Contrary to the myth that the coal shortage has been triggered by ‘green hurdles’, clearances given exceed targets in all key sectors viz power, coal, steel, cement, etc. For example, the MoEF 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 ha of forest land for the 11th Plan period till April 2011. This is expected to double capacity. Between 2006 and August 2011, 2,10,000 MW of thermal power capacity were cleared. That’s 60,000 MW or 40% in excess of what has been proposed till 2017, but only 32,394 MW of the power capacity was actually built in the past five years. Our capacity in energy and coal lies under or unutilised — yet there continues to be a clamour to seek new clearances — with an eye perhaps on the control of valuable natural resources like land and water.

The problem, as one sees it, is not that environment is being safeguarded at the cost of the economy, but that it is being compromised, at the cost of not only the economy — the World Bank estimates that environmental degradation is costing India around 5.7% of its GDP annually — but also our life sustaining eco-systems-forests, rivers, wetlands, soils, on which rests our water and food security.

The need of the hour is to strengthen, not dilute policy and regulations governing the environment, and to make decision-making processes transparent, objective and not arbitrary. The problem lies not just with governments, but with the people, and an electorate which has failed to recognise that a healthy environment is not a luxury, but the foundation for a robust economy.

Prerna Singh Bindra is trustee, ‘Bagh’ and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife
The views expressed by the author are personal