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With development high on its agenda, the BJP government is pushing through environmental clearances in order to remove all perceived bottlenecks that hinder growth. By S. GOPIKRISHNA WARRIER
AUTOTOMY is the ability of an animal to cast off a part of its body at will to save itself from predators and attackers. Lizards, for instance, detach their tails when under threat. While the predator’s attention is focussed on the wriggling tail that has just detached itself, the lizard escapes to safety.

Political parties the world over use the parallel of this natural process to deflect attack. When a party wants to tide over a difficult situation or push through a policy measure undisturbed, it drops a wriggling tail that deflects the critics’ attention to something less important, while it continues with its work elsewhere.

Having come to power through the hard sell of an image, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to have locked itself into the inevitability of having to live it out. And this situation has guided its actions in the first three months of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government it heads at the Centre. The BJP’s actions were burdened by the promise of switching on achche din (good days) from the time it came to power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated almost immediately after taking office on May 26 that there would be no honeymoon period for his government. In its early weeks, even as the government was finding it difficult to control the rising prices of foodgrains and vegetables and its promise of good days was becoming the butt of cartoonists’ caricatures, it found a villain in environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as Greenpeace. A leaked Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) report stated that the activities of these organisations had slowed the growth rate of the gross domestic product (GDP) by 2 to 3 per cent.

Interestingly, this report made its way into the public domain in the first few weeks of the new government, at a time when the Cabinet Ministers had not started their interactions with the media. So while journalists had to speculate about what the Ministers had in mind for the country, they already knew who the villains opposing development were.

The leaked I.B. report was the wriggling tail that assumed a life of its own. The media and the public continued to focus attention on environmental issues even when the government wanted public attention to be directed elsewhere. Never before has the environment been so intensely discussed and debated in the media and public space than in the first three months of the NDA government.

The BJP had promised good days even in the run-up to the parliamentary elections. It was easy to characterise the omissions and commissions of the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government as bad policy measures that prevented growth and development. The first statement the NDA made after forming the government was that environmental bottlenecks hindered development projects. These had to be removed in double-quick time, it said.

Prakash Javadekar, Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, stated at his maiden press conference that there would be a maximum time limit for obtaining environmental clearances and that this limit would be brought down systematically. In the first week of June, the Ministry launched an online mechanism for applying and getting clearances for industrial and infrastructure projects.

Javadekar assured the Ministries of Coal, Power and Steel that his Ministry would not become a roadblock in the country’s growth process. He announced that small mining projects covering less than five hectares would be exempted from seeking environmental clearance from the Centre. A clearance from the State government concerned would be sufficient for such projects, he said.

The aim of the simplification process is to have a single window for environmental clearance as promised in the election manifesto. This single window may not even be in the Environment Ministry.

Time is money for the investor and the economy, and it cannot be anybody’s argument to have projects delayed unnecessarily during the environmental clearance process. However, the environmental clearance process cannot be built only on the function of time. Necessary investigations cannot be and should not be hurried through just to meet the time deadlines. Since projects also have the potential to adversely impact lives and livelihoods, pushing through clearances without adequate investigation can be a travesty of justice for the project affected.

The NDA government’s decision to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam by 17 metres was one such action that bypassed the arguments in the courts and discussions in the public sphere on the Narmada project. Within 20 days of coming to power, the NDA allowed the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) to permit the Gujarat government to raise the height of the dam from 121.92 m to 138.72 m. This when only about 40 per cent of the canal network to distribute the water had been completed.

This, according to the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), would have added more than 250,000 people to the list of displaced while the rehabilitation of those already displaced was not yet complete as per the Supreme Court orders. Even if the numbers can be debated, the fact that the increase in the dam height will create a new group of displaced people is not under debate.

However, the permission given by the NCA came to nought when the Jabalpur High Court, acting on the basis of a petition filed by the NBA, ordered a stay on increasing the dam height in early July. A fortnight later, the Supreme Court rejected a plea by the NCA to move the matter to the apex court.

Another move by the government which disrupted an established environmental practice was the decision to reconstitute the National Board of Wildlife without the mandated 10 independent experts and five NGOs. According to a notification issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests on July 22, the reconstituted Board has one NGO and two experts as members. This goes against the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Amendment Act, 2002, which stipulates the membership criteria for the Board. The Standing Committee of the new Board is reported to have cleared most of the 140 projects reviewed during its meeting held in mid-August.

The only area where the government is treading carefully is with respect to the controversy relating to genetically modified (GM) crops. Initially, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) within the Environment Ministry cleared field trials of GM rice, mustard, cotton, chickpea and brinjal at its meeting on July 18.

There was strong criticism, not just from anti-GM crops activists but also from the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM) and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), two organisations that are close to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Following a petition from these organisations, Javadekar put the GEAC clearance on hold.

GM food controversy

The tugs and pulls of the GM food controversy have actually put the NDA government in a dilemma. On the one hand, as publicly proclaimed by Modi in early June, is the ambition to launch a tricolour revolution, which includes a second green revolution to increase agricultural production. To make this happen, the government will need to explore all options in its portfolio, including genetic modification of crops. On the other hand is the strong perception among anti-GM activists and organisations, including those with strong right-wing leanings, that multinational corporations will monopolise control over seeds through the GM crops route.

These opposing stands have made the government wary. Javadekar’s public statements were made with one foot in the pro- and the other in the anti-GM food camp. He said a cautious approach was needed on GM crops even as it was not possible to reject science. Environmental issues with religious and cultural connotations are the ones that are confusing the NDA.

As with GM crops, the Sethusamudram project to develop a shipping channel through the Palk Bay in southern Tamil Nadu will be another area where the government is likely to tread carefully. The only statement issued by the government on the Sethusamudram project is from Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari in Parliament. He said the government would suggest an alternative route that would not require the dredging of the shallow “Ram Sethu” land bridge in the Bay connecting India and Sri Lanka.

With 282 seats in the Lok Sabha, the BJP has the advantage of being able to follow the path it set for itself in its election manifesto. And it is doing so. Wherever the perceived trade-off has been between development and the environment, the government has opted for the former, even if it means bulldozing its way through. It has hesitated only with regard to issues in which it faced religious and cultural countercurrents from within the party.

In the Union Budget which gave the financial body to the NDA government’s policy plan, environmental conservation did find mention, with allocations for watershed development, sanitation, urban waste disposal, and safe drinking water, among other things. However, the main message was clear. The focus is on manufacturing, industrial and infrastructure development, and development of urban centres, such as smart cities. The focus is on the urban middle class. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley introduced a new term to the discussions in his Budget speech by defining a neo middle class. If there was any section of the voting public that decidedly and publicly swung the 2014 elections in favour of the BJP, it was the urban middle class and the youth. Somewhere in its blitzkrieg on the environment, the BJP seems to be tripping on this very constituency.

By picking on an organisation such as Greenpeace early in its tenure, the BJP ruffled this constituency. After the initial shock and awe, tweeters and bloggers began to express their displeasure. The blow was rather strong, considering that the BJP was the darling of social media in the pre-election days. Greenpeace has become the environmental conscience-keeper of the urban middle class. There are many families in urban centres that make financial contributions to Greenpeace in order to enable it to carry on its work.

Similarly, by opting to whittle down the National Wildlife Board, the government made the mistake of picking on the symbols of environmental conservation that the urban middle class relates to—wildlife sanctuaries and the charismatic species that inhabit them, such as tigers and elephants.

It is time the government took environmental concerns seriously and not view them as hindrances in the path to development.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier is regional environment manager, Panos South Asia. The views expressed are personal.

Printable version | Sep 4, 2014 11:47:48 PM |