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Losing the plot, once again

It’s high time Jairam Ramesh acknowledges that the environment is a political issue, writes Manju Menon.

india Updated: Jul 15, 2010 21:37 IST

Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh recently announced that he would seek the amendment of the 14-year-old Environment (Protection) Act to constitute an apex expert body called the National Environment Protection Authority (Nepa). He promised to get it passed in Parliament before the end of this year, despite several problems in the plan.

Indeed, what Ramesh is offering is not novel. The Parliament, bureaucracy and judiciary believe that environment is a subject for scientists, experts and technically qualified people. At best, there is some place for ‘social scientists’, mainly for understanding tribals or other such communities. However, this time, Ramesh proposes to transfer all decision-making responsibilities on infrastructure projects, townships, ports and harbours and industrial estates onto this new body, which he claims will be “free from outside influence”.

In crafting an autonomous, expert body, what is the ‘outside influence’ he is talking about? The answer is political interference and the unfortunate conclusion, therefore, is that Ramesh doesn’t see the role of politics as being for the good of the environment. The idea of a regulatory authority seems to have got his attention thanks to ‘positive’ examples from the fields of finance, telecom, etc. What these fields have in common with environment is unclear. However, there’s a critical difference between these bodies and Nepa: environment is what our development agenda is built upon and the function of the ministry has been to press for the reconciliation of seemingly incommensurable development and environmental agendas.

In Ramesh’s own words, decisions on infrastructure projects are ‘trade-offs’ between conservation and economic growth. Are these not political decisions? How then can we, as a democracy, place the final decision-making powers in the hands of a scientifically qualified body when it has no popular mandate? Take any of the concerns about infrastructure projects or the proposals against which there has been opposition. The arguments put forth by people are not strictly environmental in nature — they are worries about the loss of livelihoods, impacts on health, restricted access to food sources and increase in localised poverty.

The handing over of decision-making powers to a body that is apolitical by design will create a new set of landlords who have no ethical, moral or constitutional obligation to uphold the interests of the poor, the underprivileged and marginalised groups. There are multiple claimants to any piece of land or environmental resource. Every decision of the environment ministry is one that validates one party's claim over all others. These decisions cannot be handed over to a technical body.

At a time, when we are debating the causes of the rise of violence and the many ways and times when a country and a polity have failed the tribal, the fisherman, the farmer and the slumdweller, what we need is good politics rather than cold objectivity. There is an urgent need for all sections of government to do their best to count the poor as full citizens, with rights and privileges, not as poor environmentalists that live in harmony with the forests until some better corporate proposal sees them as coming in the way.

It is difficult to tell good scientists from bad even if you know the science itself. But it seems easier to tell a good politician from a reluctant one. Now will the Minister for Environment and Forests please carry on with his work? The environment issue is a political one and it is just the place for him.

Manju Menon is a PhD student at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed by the author are personal