5 June 2014
“Let us serve as trustees, where we utilise our natural resources for the present and at the same time ensure happiness of future generations.”
The then recently-anointed Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on the occasion of World Environment Day
10 October 2014
“We have cleared hundreds of projects. We don’t keep count of how many. If the project is not environmental friendly, it won’t get clearance. We are favouring people, we are favouring development.”
Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar told Reuters in a telephone interview
The new government at the Centre clearly finds itself in a precarious spot in the development versus environment debate. Having promised a relaxed business climate to investors in India, it finds itself hamstrung by the existing environmental laws. A rising clarion call across the globe that has asked economies to take responsibility for the harm they wreck on nature is also not helping either. Therefore, in a rushed effort to silence global critics, Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed the nomenclature of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). Stepping on his own toes a few months later, Modi, in an address to students of Sacred Heart University in Japan, asked, “Climate change – is this terminology correct? The reality is that in our family, some people are old. They say this time the weather is colder. And people’s ability to bear cold becomes less. We should also ask is this climate change or have we changed.”
Unravelling the thick mesh around the ministry, one finds not one but two successive governments on the same side of the fence in the ecology versus growth debate. For instance, former environment minister and former member of the Congress party, Jayanthi Natarajan had given consent to 1,500 projects (and denied it only to a few) in two years as per data collated by the Environmental Impact Assessment Resource and Response Centre. While this in itself is alarming, according to Development without Destruction: A Saga of Turnaround, an e-book put out by the green ministry, 750 public and private projects were approved by the BJP-led government between June 2014 and January 2015. In other words, in eight months, the Modi government had outdone the previous government in being superficially cautious about awarding approvals to projects. According to the 100-Day Report released by Ghadar Alliance, a US-based coalition of social justice organisations run by the Indian diaspora, this quick turnaround by the Modi government comes at the cost of the environment. “It is estimated that environmental damage costs for rushing these projects will cost India approximately Rs 3.75 trillion per year (almost $62 billion per year) not to mention the innumerable potential risks,” states the document.
Despite such glaring warnings, the recent non-transparent and arbitrary functioning of the Union government was seen in the two-day conference of state environment ministers in New Delhi. Inaugurated by Modi, the conference was interpreted by green activists as an attempt to create consensus among states for amendments to environmental laws as proposed by the TSR Subramanian Committee. The committee’s report had drawn flak for diluting green laws so as to ease the setting up of businesses in India.
During the event held on 6 and 7 April, the state ministers were asked to adopt a resolution to provide inputs on the recommendations made by the High Level Committee by 30 April. However, there was no clarity on if and how the suggestions would be incorporated in the report. Clearly, the recent developments indicate the government’s eagerness to push the Subramanian Committee’s report in the upcoming Parliament session without a proper consultation process.
Ever since the Modi magic of ‘acche din’ waned, the government has been receiving its share of brickbats on the introduction of the revised land acquisition Bill. Side by side, the freezing of Greenpeace India’s accounts, detention of its activist Priya Pillai and Modi’s scathing remarks on the judiciary being driven by activists were seen as an indication of the Centre’s pro-industry leanings. Similarly, the contentious move of approving the Dibang hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh, a hotspot of biodiversity, has been deemed anti-environment. Though the foundation for the project was laid during the UPA regime by former prime minister Manmohan Singh, reports state that the PMO put pressure on the environment ministry to grant permission to the proposal that was rejected many a time earlier. A research paper by the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) contends that the approval was given without considering the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the project. That is, neither public consultations nor the downstream impact of the dam on Assam and Arunachal (particularly the Dibru Saikhowa National Park) were studied.
“The people won’t accept the changes brought in the wake of the committee’s recommendations,” says SANDRP coordinator Himanshu Thakkar. “The government must realise that the environment is not an obstacle but a resource on which millions depend. By changing laws with out a participatory and transparent process, the government is making a huge blunder and inviting a severe backlash.”
On his part, Environment Minister Javadekar has brushed aside these concerns saying that his ministry is still mulling over the report. In response to questions from the media, the minister also vouched that the committee’s recommendations are only one of several inputs that the ministry would incorporate in a comprehensive law. However, questions were raised on the veracity of the claim after the ministry floated a tender to help implement the committee’s suggestions. Issued in February, the tender states, “The Authority has decided to carry out the process for selection of a Technical Consultant for preparing a Framework based on the Recommendations given by High Level Committee (‘Project’). The Technical Consultant will prepare the Project Report and Drafts of Proposed Legislations in consultation with the Authority.”
On condition of anonymity, a source disclosed to Tehelka that six or seven consultancy firms have already filed their proposals and were awaiting the ministry’s review. Environmental Resource Management, Ernst and Young and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) are among the bidders. “The ministry informed us that it has already allocated the resources for the tender in this year’s Budget,” disclosed a person closely involved in the process. However, Tehelka’s mail to the ministry enquiring about the tender did not elicit a response.
“If the ministry has floated tenders, it has evidently accepted the report,” says Ramaswamy Iyer, a former secretary, Union Ministry of Water Resources. Iyer, also the principal draftsman of India’s first National Water Policy in 1987, had written a letter to Subramanian expressing hope that the committee would save environmental laws.
The committee was set up on 29 August 2014 by the environment ministry to look into the possible revision and amendment of six environmental laws — Environment Protection Act 1986, Forest Conservation Act 1980, Wildlife Protection Act 1972, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution Act) 1974, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981 and Indian Forests Act 1927 — purportedly to help find a balance between development and environmental concerns.