In July 2011 when the UPA-II government replaced environment minister Jairam Ramesh with Jayanthi Natarajan, the intent was simple: it wanted to speed up environmental clearances for industrial projects, several of which had been blocked by her predecessor. Two years into its second innings at the Centre, the UPA was battling perceptions that under its regime, policy making had slowed down. To compound matters, India’s economic growth, particularly in the industrial sector, had begun decelerating.
Ironically, the opposite happened. Instead of fast-tracking projects, under Natarajan, the environment ministry’s clearances began sputtering. Her ministry blocked a large number of big-ticket proposals, prominent among them were Vedanta’s aluminium project in Odisha’s Niyamgiri; Nirma’s cement plant in Gujarat; Arcelor Mittal’s mega steel plant in Jharkhand; Adani Group’s port in Gujarat; and Korean major Posco’s steel plant in Odisha. By December 2013, Natarajan was asked to resign, ostensibly because the Congress wanted her to take up party duties before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The real reasons may have been quite different.
Several of the more than 100 files — each one relating to an industrial project proposal — that were lying without clearance on her table when she had to demit office in December 2013 had already been cleared by her own ministry’s statutory bodies. Yet they sat pending in the minister’s office. Inevitably, this led, first to a buzz and then to a deafening refrain in industry circles, other ministries (including finance and industry) as well as in the bureaucracy about whether there were genuine environmental concerns that were blocking approvals to projects that ran into huge numbers.
The gist of Natarajan’s letter to the Congress President in November last year (the contents of which were made public on Friday) alleges that she was acting on the directives of the Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi when she blocked some projects after she received communication via e-mail or otherwise from him. Party leaders, especially senior ones such as Gandhi, routinely receive representations from across India (in fact, Gandhi has plans to embark on a nationwide mass contact programme shortly); and they routinely pass them on to the appropriate ministries. It is up to the ministries to look into the merits of those.
The fact that many of the projects that Natarajan blocked were swiftly approved by her successor, another Congress party colleague who obviously swears allegiance to the same high command, is what gave rise to speculation that “non-merit” reasons may have been at the root of the hold-ups. In an election year, the BJP too was quick to grab an opportunity to bait the UPA— remember Narendra Modi’s scathing attack on what he called the “Jayanthi tax” that had to be paid by industry to get projects cleared?
The jury is still out on the controversy that has ensued since Friday’s leaked letter: there are reports that some of the decisions of the environment ministry under Natarajan’s leadership may be probed; and the timing of the leak and her resignation from the party have also raised eyebrows. But one thing is clear: there’s a lot more that her missive to the Congress President hides than it reveals.