Years after the 1992 Earth Summit, I thought we are pass the argument that environment is not an impediment on the path of development but is one of its derivers. And this is what India has stood for in almost all the summits after that. Of course as a developing nation, development would ostensibly be our first priority, but not at the cost of environment.
But recently, Rahul Gandhi shook this belief of many environmentalists. Gandhi, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) vice president who’s also a running candidate for prime ministerial election 2014, grumbles how environmental ministry has barricaded all the big development projects leading to slow economic growth. In his speech at FICCI on 21st December 2013, he criticized the The Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) for not giving timely clearance to many mega projects. He quoted- “Many of you have expressed your frustration with environmental clearances that are delaying projects unduly. There is excessive administrative and judicial discretion. The loopholes are so big you can drive a truck through some of them!” He said “many projects are still stuck - some for good reason and some for no good reason at all.”
(I hope while making such a decision for the country, he accounted the 5.7% loss in GDP every year India suffers for neglecting environment.)
The consequence: Jayanathi Natrajan, who has been heading the environmental ministry from July 2011 – Dec 2013, steps down from the post to ‘strengthen her party in Tamil Nadu’; and gets replaced by M Veerappa Moily - giving a room for development. Now, the new ‘pro-development’ environment minister is been giving clearance to the projects that were scrapped by the National Green Tribunal (NGT and the MoEF, projects that have hefty environmental and social impacts, projects that attract huge foreign capital and accelerate development. On his ‘project clearing spree’ for 2014 elections, Moily has cleared six long-stalled development projects worth Rs. 19,000 crore in the first eight days (highest ever) of his term and about a dozen projects till now which includes biggest ever FDI project for India- $13-billion POSCO Steel plant in Odisha- which was blocked due to forest clearance, mining and thermal power plant projects.
Interestingly, Jayanathi Natrajan, herself had cleared many projects during her tenure when she replaced Jairam Ramesh on similar grounds. According to an analysis done be Centre for Science and Environment, “the rate of forestland diverted went up significantly in January 2013; whopping rise of 42 per cent compared to 2012 and only 3.5 per cent projects were rejected; half the rejection rate of forest clearance projects since 1981. Ministry is granting clearances even to projects that have earlier been denied clearance or were at abeyance -- by diluting clauses.”
Rather than moulding our development policies to take care of environment and hence growth and economy, we have been changing our environmental policies to favour just development, and apparently a rather unsustainable one. Encironmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notifications have been amended many times to ensure clearance of many projects like Navi Mumbai airport. And we all have seen what happens to those who try to do their work a little more sincerely. Durga Shakti Nagpal was suspended for trying to stop the sand mafia and thereby harming the fragile river ecosystem. Dubbed as ‘Mr Green’-Jairam Ramesh, environment minister for two years was ‘promoted’ to ministry of rural development for his revolutionary policies that put environment before the development. And now, Natrajan had to ‘resign’ even after giving clearance to many projects for allegedly holding back mega development projects. What would be next, disabling the MoEF and NGT? After all, for how long could we keep development at par with environment in just papers and talks? It would be so much easier if we could just exterminate the environment ministry.