The first year of the Modi government has been characterised by a brazen disregard for the environment and an eagerness to fast-track clearances for projects in forest areas. At this rate, things may take a turn for the worse in the rest of the term. By LYLA BAVADAM

IN its first year, Narendra Modi’s goVernment has been true to form, proving right apprehensions that environmental concerns will not be on its agenda. Indications of this position on the environment came early in the day. After taking office, Prakash Javadekar, the Minister in charge of the newly named Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), referred to the stringent environmental clearance processes put in place by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government as “roadblocks” and “speed breakers” that caused “loss of face” to the nation. He promised swifter resolution of issues and made the now-famous statement: “Decisions are in. Delays are out.” He chalked out a ready reckoner time frame of two months for environmental clearances. And true to his word, he cleared 240 projects in the first three months (including raising the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam), leading the environmentalist Ashish Kothari to call it the Ministry for Ensuring Fast Corporate Clearances.

It is deeply ironical that the portfolio of climate change has only now been added to the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Who can forget Modi’s infamous words: “Climate change? Is this terminology correct? The reality is that in our family some people are old and they say the weather is colder… and people’s ability to bear cold becomes less.” His indifference to environmental issues was also on display when he refused to attend the United Nations’ Special Summit on Climate Change. Further proof that the Ministry is inconsequential—in the government’s very first Budget, its allocation for 2014-15 was cut by more than 50 per cent.

Javadekar’s promise of quick decisions reeks of poor understanding. An environment impact assessment (EIA), which is part of the environment clearance process, takes a minimum of one year to complete as the site in question is observed through all seasons. How, then, can clearances be given in two months? Perhaps, he was just sticking to his party’s election manifesto, which promised to “frame the environment laws in a manner that provides no scope for confusion and will lead to speedy clearance of proposals without delay”. For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it is fashionable to blame environmental laws for poor economic growth. In February, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said growth rates had “radically gone down” under the previous government owing to delayed project approvals. But while it is trendy to say this, it is factually incorrect.

The Economic Survey 2014-15 says: “It is clear that private projects are held up overwhelmingly due to market conditions and non-regulatory factors… Perhaps contrary to popular belief, the evidence points towards over exuberance and a credit bubble as primary reasons (rather than lack of regulatory clearances) for stalled projects in the private sector.”

When faced with irrefutable, data-based logic, the BJP turns economic growth into a subject of nationalist pride, where to question growth at any cost or to be pro-environment is to automatically be branded anti-national. This is what happened to Greenpeace when the organisation was barred from receiving foreign funds and its licence suspended in April under the allegation that it had “prejudicially” affected the country’s economic interests.

The same thinking was apparently being applied when the BJP decided to decimate the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). Independent experts were removed (thereby flouting a requirement of the Wildlife Protection Act) and replaced with retired forest officials nominated by the government. The new board tried to push through a 22-kilometre canal of the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project and a road through the wild ass sanctuary in Kutch district, both in Gujarat. Simultaneously, the government made it easier for projects within 10 km of sanctuaries to get clearances by ensuring that such applications were made to the NBWL and not the State wildlife boards. With the newly constituted NBWL, the probability of these projects getting “cleared” is high.

The Forest Conservation Act is also being decimated for the benefit of mining and other industries. The criteria for deciding the use of forest land are being eroded, making it easier to exploit it for non-forest purposes. Under the guise of national security and growth, even more forest areas are being opened up. Felling of trees is allowed for infrastructure projects and the status of eco-sensitive zones becomes secondary along the Line of Control and in so-called naxal areas.

Since May 2014, when the BJP came to power, the MoEFCC has been gnawing away at existing laws to shape them into instruments that can be used for expediting economic growth at the cost of the environment and human rights. In June 2014, the Ministry amended its EIA notification of 2006 to exempt irrigation projects from environmental clearances. This means that the projects do not require the seeking of permission from the people who will be affected by them. Furthermore, State governments have been allowed to clear similar projects affecting areas up to 10,000 hectares, with Ministry clearance needed only for projects affecting larger areas.

The Forest Rights Act, 2006, is also in the BJP’s sights. The Act requires that gram sabhas give prior informed consent to projects coming up in their areas. With increased awareness, especially in the coal belt, gram sabhas are wary of allowing industries in. In July 2014, the MoEFCC, in an effort to bypass gram sabhas, said documentary evidence of settlement of claims would no longer be required for proposals relating to prospecting in forest land. And in October, the Ministry said that in cases where the recent Census did not show the presence of tribal communities, gram sabha consent would not be required for forest land to be used for non-forest purposes.

The conflict between coal and the environment is an old one. After the 2012 mining scam expose, certain amendments became law. Unfortunately, while the business end of things was looked into, the environmental and human rights aspects were not. Memorandums issued in May and June stated that existing mines with an annual production capacity of less than 16 million tonnes were exempt from conducting public hearings with project-affected communities before expansion. And mines that were already at this capacity could ramp up their production to an extra six million tonnes a year.

Coal is found in heavily forested areas and mining it destroys the forest and its denizens. A 2012 Greenpeace report titled “How Coal Mining is Trashing Tigerland” points out that “Central India’s forests are home to 35% of India’s tigers…. India’s tiger population is critical—there are just 1,700.”

Greenpeace analysed 13 coalfields out of over 40 in central India and found that at risk was “1 million+ hectares of forest… that’s almost twice the area of India’s top 5 metros combined”. Greenpeace estimates that of these, at least 180,000 hectares are inhabited by tigers, 55,900 hectares by elephants and 277,600 hectares by leopards. Also, at least eight tiger reserves will be affected. A minimum of one-third of India—about 33 per cent—should be under forest cover to ensure the natural balance of things. According to the official “State of Forest Report 2013”, “the total forest and tree cover of the country is 78.92 million hectares, which is 24.01 per cent of the geographical area of the country”.

The report claims that there has been an increase of 5,871 sq. km since the 2011 report but also goes on to say that the majority of this has been observed in the open forest category, that is, areas where there is no continuous closed cover of trees. It is a fine point but technically this does not count as forest cover. Much of the country’s forest cover is in central India and a significant part of this is included in the 3,800 sq. km of forest that has been destroyed in the past year. The fate of about 5,000 sq. km more hangs by a slender thread—the MoEFCC may clear a proposal from the Prime Minister’s Office to allow five to 100 hectares of forest land to be used for industrial development.

Pollution index

When the BJP came to power, it inherited an ongoing reassessment of the Comprehensive Pollution Index that the UPA government initiated. There was a moratorium on new industries in 43 critically polluted industrial areas. This is a crucial gauge used in project clearance. Javadekar’s Ministry interrupted the review and lifted the moratorium on eight key polluted areas, including the notoriously contaminated Vapi in Gujarat and Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh.

In August, three months after he entered office, Modi set up a high-level committee to review environmental laws. The committee’s mandate was to look at the Environment Protection Act of 1986, the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974 and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981. In less than three months, it recommended a dilution of the laws and single-window clearances, something that would be welcomed by corporations.

The committee suggested eliminating all external monitoring of environmental norms and letting companies monitor their own environmental record. In an article in Counterview, an online platform, Ritwick Dutta, Debi Goenka and Himanshu Thakkar debunked the committee’s report, saying it was “prepared in great haste, is replete with factual inaccuracies, wrong and misleading conclusions and the incorrect interpretation of the laws it was meant to review…. The recommendations, if accepted, would dismantle the foundation of environmental rights in India and only lead to an increase in environmental conflicts, and should therefore be rejected in its entirety.”

The final frontier for the BJP’s onslaught on the environment is for the government to strangle the National Green Tribunal (NGT). This body of judicial and expert members views all challenges to environmental clearances before they can go on to the Supreme Court. Until now, the NGT has not been touched, but given the blatant disregard the BJP has shown for environmental concerns, any change for the worse would come as no surprise.