Barely a month at the helm of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Veerappa Moily has cleared projects worth at least Rs 150,000 crore. While many see in his rush an unprecedented green sellout, the truth is that the minister is only taking forward the dubious legacy of his predecessors and being unabashed about it.

By Jay Mazoomdaar | Grist Media – Wed 22 Jan, 2014


(Photo courtesy – IANS photos)

It is the art of the absurd, protecting the environment at any cost while ensuring unbridled growth. Environment ministers know this even though each of them claims to have accomplished the impossible. But after clearing 70-odd projects worth at least Rs 150,000 crore in two weeks, Veerappa Moily accepted that destruction was inevitable.

Before one could marvel at his gall, the environment minister clarified, “Destruction has to take place but that is to create something, not for destruction in a negative way.” He dubbed it ‘creative destruction’. Suddenly, what even an eloquent Jairam Ramesh could best describe as a “fine balancing act” sounded nearly esoteric.

But how he says or does it is all that separates Moily from his predecessors. Barring the possible exception of Suresh Prabhu – who many veterans recall as being ‘somewhat different’ – environment ministers have been indifferent gatekeepers, to put it very mildly, of India’s oft-squandered natural wealth.

Since 1982, for example, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has approved 94 percent of coal mining projects that came to it for clearance. But the green sellout in the decade under the stewardship of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) stands out on many counts. It began under the watch of the DMK’s A Raja, prime accused in the 2G scam, who took it upon himself to break the dubious records set by his predecessor and party colleague TR Baalu during the final years of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government.

To begin with, Raja packed the ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committees (EACs) with members from Tamil Nadu, his home state. A number of appointments, like that of hydel project promoter and former Union Power Secretary P Abraham, reeked of gross conflict of interest.

In just two years, between 2006 and 2008, the MoEF had issued 2,016 clearances and rejected only 14 projects. Raja ignored his Danish counterpart Connie Hedegaard‘s warning about a fugitive hazardous ship seeking entry into Indian waters in 2005, and went on to allow trading in dangerous waste material.

The MoEF under UPA-I cleared thermal power projects worth 701,820 megawatts (MW), thrice the additional capacity projected till 2032 by the Planning Commission. Besides clearing 124 coal blocks, the ministry allowed 169 mines in Goa, handing private companies nearly 60 million tons of iron ore in violation of India’s wildlife and environmental laws.

As Raja’s successor in UPA-II, Jairam Ramesh brought the warmth of transparency to Paryavaran Bhawan, the ministry headquarters, and made all the right noises. Within three months of taking charge in May 2009, he ordered that no forest land be diverted for the POSCO project in Odisha without the consent of the affected gram sabhas.

But the demands of growth soon started telling on the minister. In the next 12 months, Ramesh issued 535 clearances, rejecting only six projects. In violation of his own August order, he also granted ‘final clearance’ for land diversion for the POSCO project on 29 December. Then, unable to defend the volte-face, he wrote to the state after 10 days that the ‘final clearance’ was ‘conditional’ on settlement of rights under the Forest Rights Act.

In fact, Ramesh’s most significant legacy is his invention of the ‘conditional route’ to escape legal and moral scrutiny. Every time he let a contentious project slip through, he justified the decision by slapping a ridiculously large number of conditions on the clearance. No matter that the MoEF has neither the manpower nor the infrastructure to check for compliance or take punitive action.

The nuclear plant in Maharashtra’s Jaitapur, for example, was cleared with 35 conditions. The Steel Authority of India was allowed to mine the invaluable elephant forests in Jharkhand on 13 conditions. The Navi Mumbai airport project got a go-ahead with 32 conditions. Nobody knows if and how any of these riders is helping the Konkan’s fragile coastal ecology or the ancient sal forests of Saranda or the mangroves off Mumbai.

In 2010 though, Ramesh had the chance to distinguish himself when the coal ministry requested the MoEF to draw up a method to demarcate areas to be kept out of bounds for mining. The idea was that such a classification would expedite clearances in the remaining areas. But when Ramesh listed several densely forested stretches as “no-go areas” for mining, the coal ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office were outraged. He backed down and conceded 85 per cent of the proposed “no-go” zones.

For all his bravado, Ramesh was eventually reduced to a rubber stamp. A couple of months before he was shifted out, the minister ‘evaluated’59 project proposals in a little over two hours during a 2011 meeting of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), rejecting only four. That works out to less than three minutes of scrutiny per project.

Yet, an impatient PMO replaced Ramesh with a low-profile Jayanthi Natarajan. Unlike her media-savvy predecessor who was suspiciously vocal against the system he served, the lady did not protest too much. In fact, the former Congress spokesperson barely spoke on matters of her ministry. But she delivered.

Just as Raja picked Abraham and Ramesh settled for Rakesh Nath, who headed the Indian chapter of the International Commission on Large Dams – a rabidly pro-large dam lobby – while serving as the EAC chairman, Natarajan’s choice for the job was former coal secretary Alok Perti who famously called upon India to “decide whether she wants electricity or tigers”. During 2012-13, none of the 198 proposals for coal mining was turned down; only six of the 101 proposed thermal power plants were rejected.

But the growth hawks wanted still more.

Raising the green bogey

As early as 2011, the Reserve Bank blamed environmentalism for a one-third dip in foreign investment and the Prime Minister underlined how it was “necessary to ensure that these (green) regulatory standards do not bring back the Licence Permit Raj”. In 2012, Finance Minister P Chidambaram sprung the proposed National Investment Approval Board (NIAB) to grant prompt single-window clearances to projects worth Rs 1,000 crore or more.

To her credit, Natarajan stood her ground in this turf war. She even issued a press release in August 2012 to counter allegations that her ministry was a bottleneck for growth. It read: “The 11th Five Year Plan has projected a target of 50,000 MW of additional thermal power capacity; the 12th Plan asks for 100,000 MW. In the past 5 years, up to 2011, the MoEF has granted environmental clearance to 210,000 MW of power – that is 60,000MW more power than has been proposed until 2017. In most cases including coal and thermal power projects, clearances given by MoEF far exceed targets, and even capacity projected for the future.”

The NIAB proposal was scrapped, and the Cabinet Committee on Investment (CCI) was set up in January 2013, with representatives from several ministries. But the agenda did not change. The UPA-II government was desperate to circumvent forest and wildlife laws – its legacy from the years of Indira Gandhi – and the Forest Rights Act, a major achievement of the UPA-I.

At stake were some 215 projects worth over Rs 7 lakh crore. The argument was that huge bank loans had been made available to these projects held up due to delay in environment and forest clearances or lack of coal supplies. Everybody was worried about idling investments. Nobody wondered why funding was given to projects whose environmental viability was in question.

But this was a time-tested strategy.  In October 2012, coal mining was allowed in Mahan block of Singrauli district – despite denial of clearance by the forest advisory committee – because Essar and Hindalco had already invested Rs 3,600 crore. Ramesh had written to the prime minister in March 2010: “Shri Shashi Ruia [of Essar] says that the coal mine should be cleared because 65 per cent of the power plant is ready. I cannot agree, sir, to this logic. I have repeatedly raised my objection to such fait accompli arguments in Cabinet meetings…”

Eventually, though, one of the oldest and largest sal forests of Asia in the catchment of the Mahan river was left to the mercy of some 36 conditions attached to the clearance. No crystal ball is needed to see which way POSCO may go. Though the steel plant has been delinked from the proposed port and mining, once the company sinks a few thousand crore, it will demand that the ancillary projects be cleared no matter what the environmental cost.

Sadly, for all the concessions she made, Natarajan was perhaps doomed to fail in her brief to outdo Ramesh. But how does one better a 99 percent clearance rate? By getting there faster. Between 1982 and 1999, the average delay in project clearance was five years. During NDA rule, it came down to three years. The UPA-I reduced it to 17 months. The MoEF under UPA-II was taking just about 11 months.

One would have thought that was quite an improvement until Moily stepped in and redefined “speed”. Within days, he relaxed norms for several industries, stalled the notification process of environmentally sensitive areas in the six Western Ghats states (which would have become a political liability before general elections) and cleared a slew of mega projects.

With industry cheering, Moily is also expected to help his government present a unified stand in favor of permitting field trials of genetically modified food crops before the Supreme Court. Since Ramesh declared an indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal in 2010, the environment ministry, for a change, has been consistent in its stand.

Natarajan put on record her disagreement with the ministries of Agriculture and Science and stood by the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee and the Technical Expert Committee of the Supreme Court opposing field trials in the absence of an effective regulatory regime. But with the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill still pending in Parliament, it will take some serious jugglery, even from Moily, to reverse the stated position of his predecessors.

He will also find it difficult to justify regularization of many pre-2006 allocations of coal mines in violation of norms after the Supreme Courtmade it clear on January 8 that investments adding up to Rs 2 lakh crore “cannot be a defence and no law would help them [companies]”.

But Moily is not wasting time. He has allowed coalmines with an annual capacity of up to 8 million tons to expand capacity by 50 percentwithout any public consultation. He cleared the 2,800MW Fatehabad nuclear power plant in Haryana without a public hearing on its environment impact assessment report. He issued environmental clearance to the POSCO plant without a forest clearance by delinking it from the port and mining components of the project.

The promises of a cumulative impact assessment study made and broken by his predecessors helped Moily clear Tawang-II and Teesta-IV hydel projects by overruling recommendations of the National Board for Wildlife. But even in his rush, he did not forget to justify these decisions with long lists of conditions. The Rs 5,000-crore Vizhinjam port, for example, has got environmental and Coastal Regulation Zone clearances with 29 specific and 14 general conditions.

While Moily is evidently building on the dubious legacy of the green ministry, his unabashed urgency has unsettled many. After all, the Lok Sabha polls are knocking at the door. But those shocked by Moily’s home run could not have missed the build-up. Nobody frowned when Planning Commission  Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia spelled out in September 2012 Finance Minister Chidambaram’s “excellent idea” of amending the rules of business for projects above a critical size so that “the permission that has to be given is given”.

Moily has merely done away with the charade of due process.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist. He writes on environment, development, politics and life. He is currently working on a book of essays. @mazoomdaar



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