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Turning a paler shade of green

A business magazine recently called environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh a Kung Fu master because of the ease with which he tackles opposing camps in the environment versus development debate.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2011 19:54 IST

A business magazine recently called environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh a Kung Fu master because of the ease with which he tackles opposing camps in the environment versus development debate.

But now after the judgement on the Pohang Iron and Steel Company (Posco)’s plant in Orissa, he could probably be called a trapeze master, swinging from one bar to another but settling where his bosses want him to. On Monday, the minister cleared the Rs 54,000 crore steel project with 60 conditions that the company needs to follow.

Recently, facing criticism that his ministry was blocking development, Mr Ramesh said he did not want to be known as ‘Dr No’. Post-Posco, he should harbour no such fear.

There are no doubts that the upcoming plant is not in tune with the stringent green norms. Two panels set up by the ministry had said so. Civil society reports like the Iron and Steal: The POSCO-India Story also concluded that there was ‘wild exaggeration’ of benefits and a ‘deliberate’ overlooking of infrastructural and ecological costs.

It seems that the plant’s only selling point, and the government has been harping on it relentlessly, is that it is the largest foreign direct investment (FDI) in India and any refusal would hurt investor confidence. Is that a good enough reason? Well, many would argue not.

Orissa’s MoU with Posco proposes an annual export of 400 million tonnes of iron ore to its plants in South Korea. It will pay the government R27 per tonne when the prices in the international market is between R3,000 to 7,000 a tonne. Isn’t it but natural that the ‘largest FDI’ tag will be questioned in the face of such figures? Recently, Mr Ramesh cleared controversial projects like the Jaitapur nuclear power project, Lavasa Hill City Project and the Navi Mumbai airport with conditions but stopped Vedanta’s bauxite mining project and asked for the demolition of the Adarsh Housing Society because they violated green laws. So how were they more wrong than the others?

By introducing an element of subjectivity, the minister is only weakening the ministry and its preeminent position in such matters. He also seems to have excessive confidence in the states for keeping an eye on violators. Going by experience, it is too much to expect from them. And minus strict monitoring, safeguards/conditions will have no meaning.

The minister is known as someone who engages with civil society often. There’s no doubt that his tenure has put the environment back on the government agenda, yet it is very wrong if he cites different rules for different violators. Even this will send out the wrong signals to the investors and also leave the impression that the green stick is being used to settle political scores more than anything else.

If violations can be offset by ‘conditions’, then why deny other violators the go-ahead with their projects? After all, a couple of ‘conditions’ can set a wrong right.