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Subverting environmental regulation

Publication Date : 23-10-2012


A hysterical campaign is under way to malign India's ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) as a "Green Terror" agency which is throttling development by putting obstacles against industrial, mining and infrastructure projects. The campaign, backed by Big Business, accuses the MoEF of imposing a new "licence-permit raj" and throwing a "green noose" around industry's neck.

This feeds into the efforts by the Prime Minister's Office and the finance ministry to create an all-powerful National Investment Board (NIB), a one-stop fast-track clearance window for projects worth 10 billion-plus rupees (US$187 million) -- regardless of their impact on land, air, water, forests, and vulnerable tribal communities.

Such mindless approvals will gravely threaten South Asia's irreplaceable and invaluable environmental resources. India has already lost half its prime forests and much biodiversity, besides suffering extensive air and water pollution, which has devastated urban life, turned rivers into sewers, and poisoned groundwater.

The NIB will accelerate this. It will use its extraordinary authority to supersede individual ministries and bypass environmental impact procedures and ensure that projects conform to the Environment Protection Act, Forest Conservation Act, Wildlife Protection Act and Forest Rights Act.

The NIB will thus undermine basic tenets of democratic governance: transparency, rule of law, public participation, equity and justice. It'll place private profit above environmental protection to boost "investor confidence".

The NIB's origins lie in pressure from the corporate sector which stridently complains of regulatory delays. As we see, the complaints lack substance; if anything, the MoEF has been clearing too many projects without scrutiny.

The NIB doesn't even contemplate giving a hearing to citizens who may be aggrieved by projects. As MoEF Minister Jayanthi Natarajan writes in her unusually forthright letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the NIB will "be used for the benefit only of large investors …This concept is unacceptable. The NIB has no constitutional authority to decide on the failure of any minister...[or] assume his/her authority." Nor will it have "the competence to do so".

Tribal affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo also opposes the NIB, and says no environment clearance should be given to any project without total compliance with the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA).

Under the FRA, passed in 2006, but greatly delayed in implementation, gram sabhas (village councils) must approve diversion of forest land to other uses. PESA provides for tribal self-rule and control over land.

The NIB is only the latest of recent measures to dilute and bypass environmental regulations. Take three other examples. First, the government is loath to create an independent regulatory/judicial forum. In 2010, it set up the National Green Tribunal to hear environmental cases.

The NGT has passed good judgments, as in the POSCO case, wrongly cleared by the MoEF. It has also criticised official decision-making. The government is trying has tried to disable the NGT deviously -- by not appointing judges and by denying them offices and accommodation. In disgust, six judges have resigned, weakening the Tribunal's effectiveness.

Second, the government has altered the composition of three statutory bodies, the Forest Advisory Committee, the Environmental Advisory Committee and the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL). For instance, non-official members of the FAC -- Mahesh Rangarajan, Amita Baviskar and Ullas Karanth, all distinguished scholars -- were replaced by blatantly pro-industry persons, including a mining business representative.

Similarly, several well-known NBWL expert members, including Asad Rahmani, M.K. Ranjitsinh, Valmik Thapar and Bittu Sehgal recently protested the lack of integrity in forest clearances. They were forced to approve 59 projects in or near protected national parks and sanctuaries within two hours. They received 39 of these proposals just two days earlier, with no time to study them.

Of a piece with this are the manoeuvres around the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel headed by the eminent scientist Madhav Gadgil. This contains many farsighted suggestions on protecting one of the world's most precious and fragile ecosystems, including a ban on mining. The government is trying to dilute its effect through a committee headed by an arch-conservative scientist, K. Kasturirangan.

Third, the MoEF is corrupting the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process and granting mandatory environmental and forest clearances excessively and indiscriminately. It has cleared 200,000 megawatt of coal-based power plants, way beyond our projected needs, Plan targets or investment intentions. That will double India's power capacity -- and emissions -- in five years.

Between January 2008 and August 2011, the MoEF cleared all but 19 of the 1,689 projects submitted -- an approval rate of 98.9 per cent!

The MoEF website proudly displays 1,800 rejections of forest clearance applications since 1981. But most of these took place before Jairam Ramesh became environment minister. Only 8 per cent happened post-2009.

Over the past three years, the government has loosened Coastal Regulatory Zone rules to permit all kinds of high-impact projects, including power stations, roads on stilts and housing estates, destroying mangroves and marine ecosystems which protect against cyclones.

EIA norms have been relaxed; mandatory public hearings have been made discretionary. EIA reports aren't written by independent experts, but consultants hired by project promoters. These are typically incomplete and full of contradictions. A consultants' industry has mushroomed, which often recycles reports by changing the project name.

Although multiple projects, say dams, are planned on the same river, they are approved individually; the cumulative impact is never considered. Most are approved without field visits, with pious faith in the promoter's neutrality, rather than realistically seeing him as an interested party.

As Ramesh confessed, in the past decade: "We must have approved about 7,000 projects…, each [with] conditions and safeguards…. But unfortunately, we do not have a system of monitoring compliance…." through periodic inspections.

FAC non-official members pointed out 10 different flaws in its working, lack of diligent first-stage scrutiny, absence of on-site impact studies, opacity in disclosure of meeting agendas, and lack of penalties for false reporting. No action was taken on these.

We need to breathe fresh life into the MoEF through public accountability and effectiveness. The NIB will kill it altogether.

The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.


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