From one minister who came across as a loose cannon — Jairam Ramesh — to another who is now rarely seen or heard in the media — Jayanthi Natarajan — the dusty corridors of the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) have seen many radical changes over the past five years. This month Natarajan will complete one year of being in the ministry — an appropriate time to analyse how she has fared since she took charge.
Natarajan, in her first interaction with the media, made it clear that she would maintain a low profile but would continue to talk tough when it came to protecting the nation’s natural environment and resources. Her low profile in the media in subsequent months had us convinced that hers would be a stoic but mature response to a ministry that has courted many a controversy in recent times.
The minister may have got good press at two international-level negotiations, in Durban and in Rio, and has succeeded in ensuring that the country’s development agenda is not hampered by pressures from the developed world. But on the domestic front, the functioning of this ministry in the last one year leaves much to be desired.
To start with, Natarajan can lay claims to being a true ‘green’ minister. She has given the green signal to every single project that has come to the ministry for clearance, even those with ecologically disastrous consequences. Since she took over she has chaired three meetings of the National Board of Wildlife, a premier decision-making body that decides whether a crucial wildlife habitat should be signed away or not for a road or a dam project — not even one project has got a firm no.
And then there are projects which her own ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) has advised her to reject. For instance, the 300 MW Alaknanda hydro-electric project is being constructed on the main tributary of the Ganga — by private company GMR. The FAC and the Wildlife Institute of India had both recommended rejecting the project, because of the high ecological importance of the area. But Natarajan overruled her own committee and gave it a nod, despite the fact that the dam will destroy part of the buffer of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, which is rich in biodiversity and home to endangered wildlife such as the snow leopard, brown bear and 16 endangered plant species. The second project that she cleared, despite the FAC saying no, is the Lower Demwe hydro project in Arunachal Pradesh. The construction of the dam will involve felling of over 50,000 trees along with submerging the habitat of wild animals like dolphins, wild buffaloes and the Bengal Florican. And yet Natarajan has given a green signal.
The ministry has as its foremost mandate the protection of India’s biodiversity. We are yet to see Natarajan visiting a national park or a tiger reserve or pass any significant resolution that comes strongly in support of biodiversity.
On the positive side, Natarajan has shown that she will not take decisions simply to be in the news, and she studies an issue carefully before responding and when she does, she responds with gravitas. Now, that could be the way forward for a ministry that has become the most watched in recent times for its decisions.
Unfortunately, between a minister who couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and another who has been largely quiet, the loser has been the environment. Industry-wallahs can cry themselves hoarse about India’s growth, which is being stifled with the licence raj of the ministry. But take a look at official figures to decide if this is really true. In 2011, the ministry granted environmental clearance to 181 coal mines, 267 thermal power plants, 188 steel plants and 106 cement units. Further, an astounding 210,000 MW of thermal power capacity has been cleared — that’s 60,000 MW more than what has been proposed till 2017! Natarajan has not courted controversy, but that’s not good enough. She hasn’t taken any tough decisions either.
(Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and environment editor of CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal.)