National Highway to Doom

Photo: Arabinda Mahapatra

AT A recent Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lamented that green laws are the new ‘Licence Raj’. This is not the first time the PM has expressed this view; in 2011, he emphasised at a public forum that “saving the environment could not be at the cost of development”.

In 2008, he laid the foundation stone for the 3,000 MW Dibang hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh, even though it had yet to get the green clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The clearance was in limbo because the public hearing had not been held as mandated under the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA).

The PM’s attitude towards green laws seems to propagate a myth that such laws are impeding development. For every three projects rejected by the MoEF’S statutory bodies, 97 are cleared. And those that are rejected can apply again. Also, more than 100 projects on 9,000 hectares of forestland have been cleared by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) in the past three months, which means we are losing forestland at the rate of 100 hectares per day.

Two coal mining projects were cleared in Odisha despite glaring violations found by the FAC. In the September meeting of the FAC, (Source: EIA Resource and Response Centre, New Delhi) more than 93 percent projects didn’t show any history of compensatory afforestation, yet they were considered. Worse, more than 90 percent projects were approved, even though the nodal forest officer, who has to give detailed comments on why the project should be given a go-ahead on prime forests, had either just signed or left the columns blank. Even areas rich in biodiversity are not spared, such as the Gola corridor, which is crucial for elephants and tigers in Uttarakhand.

The NHAI recently threatened to sue the MoEF over delays in green clearances. Here again, one needs to look at the ministry data. If you look at three highway projects that came up for discussion with the FAC, two were cleared and one sent back for additional information.

Take the example of Yamunotri-Saharanpur Highway. More than 1 lakh trees are facing the axe, and the application makes no mention of the damage to wildlife or biodiversity, yet it was cleared. Worse still, the project is based in UP, but a certificate from the collector of Mahasamand (a district in Chhattisgarh) was provided! Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan has made it amply clear that clearances are being held up because of incomplete application forms or false information. But these statistics seem to escape the prime minister’s eye.

In his 2011 Independence Day speech, the PM took credit for setting up the National Green Tribunal, but it faces many hurdles. Two years later, the regional benches are yet to be set up; there is no proper courtroom; many members have quit due to lack of accommodation; and a chairperson was appointed only after the SC forced the Centre’s hand.

Green laws are not ‘Licence Raj’, Mr PM. They were introduced by your government, the Constitution and Parliament. The development brigade may show you the example of China. China’s breakneck speed of development has overshadowed the environmental disasters facing the country. Sixteen of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. More than 70 percent of China’s rivers, lakes and streams are heavily polluted. Every year, 6,000 square miles of grasslands and forests are lost to desertification and over 300 species are endangered or threatened. Is this the development model we want?

Of course, we want to develop. But not at the cost of our right to fresh air and clean water or our wildlife. That’s what the EPA and the Forest Conservation Act ensure. They protect our rights to have access to clean air; they ensure the industries you give the licence to operate do so with some system of checks and balances. You would do well by supporting your environment minister, who has a tough job of balancing the environment and development needs, while ensuring these checks are in place. And the industry could do well by respecting the law of the land instead of being a constant crybaby.

Bahar Dutt is Environment Editor, CNN-IBN