Environment minister Jairam Ramesh has been under attack for raising environment concerns in implementing industrial projects, especially regarding coal mining. The minister explained to Chetan Chauhan, in an interview, reasons for his approach.
Q. Are you abandoning the go no go policy for Coal mining?
A. What I said at the Group of Minister (GoM) meeting yesterday that the go no go was not my idea. It was an idea that the chairman of Coal India Limited had put forward in June of 2010, when I had my first interaction with the minister of coal. I had been minister of power and I have worked on the coal industry every since 1983. So, I know, the crucial importance the coal plays. In climate change talks I have been saying repeatedly that coal is the main stay of India's energy economy. We have to expand hydel, nuclear energy, and renewable energy. But, coal will still be source for 55% to 60 % of our electricity for the next two decades. Coal is central to our energy economy.
Q. Do you want to stick to go no go policy?
A. What I said to the GoM was it was not my idea. So, the result of this study, done jointly by environment ministry and Coal Mine Planning and Design Institute (CMPDI) are now deeply uncomfortable to the coal industry. And, therefore, they want to abandon it. So, I said fine, if you want to abandon it, by all means we can go back to the old system. I said let me give a presentation in March and give you all the options and try to find a way out. I have not abandoned go no go. I have certainly it is one option.
Q. What are other options?
A. You wait till 15 of March. I have moved my position initially on go no go, initially, if your see. The analysis of nine coalfields we have done and our first exercise revealed that about 35 % of the area is no go. Then we did one more exercise because PMO and Planning Commission wanted it and the no go area we bought down to 26 %. I can live with 26 %. My Ahluwalia is on record as having said that he supports the go no go. And, he would like somewhere between 15-20%.
Q. A large number of environmentalists have supported you?
A. That is true. Ministry of coal wants to abandon it completely. After Coal India IPO, they will like to have good evaluations.
Q. But, Planning Commission said such classification should be done on scientific basis.
A. Good forest density is scientific. I don't understand what Planning Commission means by scientific. This exercise was done by forestry experts, wildlife and coal experts. It was not done by IAS officers. Now, IAS officers are sitting in a judgment of a scientific study.
Q. You have been accused of being dogmatic?
A. It was on the suggestion of coal ministry. I am a responsive minister. I respond to suggestions of other ministries. I listen. I am not dogmatic. When other ministries come up with good ideas, I respond. So, I responded and now they are deeply uncomfortable with it. Surely, I can go back to the old system, It is one option.
Q. What are disadvantages of the old system?
A. At least in the go no go, you know what will not get approved. So, you don't waste time with that. Once you know a particular mine is in a no go area you don't waste two three years running after it. You can concentrate your energy and manpower on projects in go area.
Q. Will it be automatic approval to projects in go areas?
A. No automatic. You have to go through FAC. No go means don't even other to apply. Mr (Pranab) Mukerjee made it clear we are not rewriting Forest Conservation Act, 1980, which remains Indira Gandhi's most important legacy's. I will not be party to any attempt to dilute Indira Gandhi's legacy.
Q. What you have to say on fast tracking of environment clearances?
A. Coal India presented 55 projects lying with Environment ministry. 53 are with the state governments. Two are pending with us for four five months. Of them, 19 are in Chhattisgarh, 16 in Jharkhand, 14 in Maharashtra and six in Orissa.
State governments take 3 to four years to get clearance. Yesterday, I called forest officials from these four states. They told me, Forest Rights Act, getting no objection from district collector and getting forest maps, takes lot of time. And, in some states finding find land for compensatory afforestation also takes time. Like in Jharkhand.
I said in the GoM, we have decided that in Jharkhand, where maximum delays take place, we will allow compensatory afforestation to take place in degraded forests. First application of this was in Chiria iron ore mines. It was highly appreciated by Mr Mukerjee. This is significant change. We will expand it to other states. I will present my ideas on giving incentives to states to fast track clearances in the next GoM meeting.
Q. Isn't it difficult to strike a balance between growth and environment?
A. It is a big headache to me. It is a thankless job. Finding a balance is an incredible complex problem. I tried to find balance in Posco and in Chiria iron ore mines. Obviously, this balance is going to depend on how strictly the conditions I am imposing are going to be enforced. Unfortunately, we have a very weak monitoring system. We have to build up our monitoring capacity and I expect public will pay an important role because they now know all the conditions and should put pressure on these companies to fulfill the conditions.
Q. What is your role as environment minister?
A. I cannot be a pure growthwallah in this job. I cannot be a pure environmentalist. I have to be both. Unfortunately, there are people who are growth maniacs, who believe in nine percent growth. Grow now pay later. Then there are environmentalists, who are hit by banana syndrome, which means build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone. So, it is a difficult exercise. At end of the day, I am not in a popularity contest. So I had to do what I think is right. I have to things in transparent manner. One system I have introduced is the system of speaking order. All my orders are in the public domain.
Q. Initially, you were looked at as an activist minister.
A. I was not an activist minister. It was misrepresentation.
Q. In the last few months because of government pressure or other reasons you are tying to balance it out now.
A. Yes, I am. I think people in this country go from one extreme to another. I am not an activist. I will not call myself an environmentalist in the sense of the term it is understood. I am not obsessed with nine percent growth. I believe on occasions we have to make difficult choices, which may mean, we may have to say no.
Q. What sort of growth, you think, can balance environmental concerns?
A. I mean. We are still finding out. Everyone is talking about this coalmining project. A recent World Bank report said 65,000 MW of power could be generated from renewable sources. We can't we look at this option. I am strong believer in nuclear power and alternative options.