The winds of change are sweeping across the dusty corridors of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). After ten years of DMK rule, a Congress Minister, Jairam Ramesh, is in charge. But will he be able to bring in the necessary changes at a time when India ’s natural resources are facing an onslaught?
Shaking up a ministry after years of lethargy will be the biggest challenge for Ramesh. But shaking his own legacy might be even a bigger challenge. The minister belongs to the school of economic reforms, which may have put India on the path of economic growth but it has also been accompanied by losses that are unaccounted for: coal mines in tiger reserves and elephant habitats, roads bifurcating national parks and mega dams submerging prime tropical forests are worth millions of dollars. The minister has, however, taken his new role seriously: he has reviewed several projects and initiated a number of policy announcements. Plans are now afoot to introduce the National Green Tribunal (NGT), a judicial body to decide on environment matters. With this, the functioning of two existing bodies — the National Environment Appellate Authority ( NEAA) and the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court — could be impacted.
The NEAA — the only judicial body in the country to hear grievances against environment clearance process — has the dubious record of dismissing all but one petition in the last 12 years. In contrast, the other quasi-judicial body, the CEC, which looks into all matters related to diversion of forests for non-forest activities, has taken its role of a watchdog of India’s forests seriously. Will the CEC too be dissolved? It is perhaps this body that the Minister may need to save — if he is serious about his role of protecting India’s forests.
However, Ramesh may face some trouble from his own government. Take for example, the mining of the bauxite-rich Niyamgiri hills in Orissa. In letters accessed through an RTI, it is clear that pressure came from the Prime Minister’s Office to the MoEF in 2008 asking for information on the status of forest clearance that was pending with it. herein lies the scam: since the project is being developed in a Fifth Schedule Area, land acquisition can only be undertaken by the state.
In this case, the land will be handed over once acquired by the state to a private company, Vedanta. Is it ethical for the state to put pressure on its own ministry on behalf of a private agency?
The second likely source of conflict will be the state governments of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, states with huge mining resources as well as forests. In 2005, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh wrote a letter to MoEF asking for a forest in Korba to be declared an elephant reserve to reduce human-elephant conflict. Three months later, a letter is written by the Confederation of Indian Industry requesting for the area not to be declared as elephant reserve as the area has huge coal deposits. A far-sighted CM who wanted to protect the elephants has been silenced by commercial interest. What will the MoEF do in such cases? Support the CII or the BJP CM?
However, India ’s green activists can take heart that they finally have access to a minister who is articulate, English-speaking much like the urban elite from which India ’s environment movement is drawn. Perhaps herein lies Ramesh’s strength. He is a minister who is accessible and responsive. In the days to come, can this Minister take the much-needed tough decisions which may at times make him unpopular with his own government and put a clear moratorium on infrastructure projects coming up on elephant corridors and vital tiger habitats? Jairam Ramesh has his work cut out. And the greens have much to hope for from the new minister.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and environment editor of CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal