Two recent incidents have been a cause of worry to environmentalists and wildlife conservationists. One is the promise to fast-track clearances for projects; the other is an investigative report that questions the operations, morality and intent of certain non-governmental organisations (NGOs). There has been a furore over the latter, while the former has slipped beneath the carpet of transparency in governance.

The debate over the actions of certain organisations or individuals, which may indeed be questionable, has obscured the actual need to conserve the environment.

This muddle-headedness — evident in television debates on prime time, statements by political spokespersons, the leaked Intelligence Bureau report and certain actions taken by the new minister of environment, forests and climate change — is akin to saying that since our public healthcare centres are rubbish, we need to question the need to provide healthcare to all citizens in the first place.

The IB report and the debate surrounding it have dealt with two important but disparate, issues. First, and by all arguments a legitimate question, is whether certain NGOs are transparent; it should be asked irrespective of the origins of funding.

Moreover, it needs to be levelled individually rather than collectively at all institutions in the country, within or outside the government. If there are organisations or individuals not following the law, bring them to book through evidence and not leaked reports.

The worrying thing What is worrisome, however, is that the report questions the morality and intentions of the NGOs. These bodies can only be judged by their actions. The NGOs leading protests against the government cannot and should not be judged as illegal — unless they are violent or disruptive. Debating the benefits of a nuclear power plant, large dams or large-scale linking of rivers is healthy; circumventing debate indicates a lack of conviction about the contribution of such projects to ‘economic security’.

Environmental concerns may set back, to some extent, economic growth as is measured or conceived today. Whether this has a greater impact than policy paralysis, incompetence, lack of long-term planning or corruption is for the pundits to decide; at least some experts do not seem to think so. Further, whether such a setback is detrimental to the country, or even ‘economic security’ is a contentious matter.

And this is where a crucial distinction needs to be made: going against policies put forth by the current government is not anti-national, acting against the country is.

Does the environment matter? So in the clamour for a two-digit economic growth, is there room for environmental concerns? The current director-general of the Confederation of Indian Industries reassures us that there is scope for “green growth”, while Minister for Environment Prakash Javadekar envisions for us a sustainable road to development.

This is quite encouraging, but these words are belied by simultaneous promises to fast-track environmental clearances for pending power, mining and road-building projects. Not hasten the ‘clearance process’, mind you, but fast-track the clearance itself.

This nuanced phrasing of words, used repeatedly during the elections by all parties, is telling. While efforts to make the process of obtaining environmental clearances more transparent are laudable, exempting a large number of projects from clearances is questionable. At the same time, there has been a move to deem certain proposals as ‘approved’ in the absence of objections. What this does is to subtly shift the onus of proof with regards to the environmental impact from the proponents of projects to environmental and conservation activists.

The unfortunate conclusion is that we are laying more emphasis on cutting down forests than researching and conserving them in a scientifically-informed manner.

It has come to the stage where environmental and forest clearances are being seen as a necessary nuisance. Does this mean impact assessments will be conducted with the sole intent of obtaining clearances? We hope not. We need to choose alternatives which allow for projects to be implemented with least impact on the environment.

The process of environmental regulation may be a road-block to development, but that cannot be said for environmental concerns per se . Javadekar’s challenge is to streamline implementation of regulation while keeping the intent secure.

We’re not pessimists The first step towards green growth is to break the illusion that environmentalists are sanctimonious naysayers. When we bemoan the lack of water in our taps, complain about not being able to breathe for pollution in the air, when farmers commit suicide following desertification of their lands, it is not difficult to search for reasons to conserve our natural resources or tackle climate change.

Back in the 18th century, it was predicted that humans would be limited in their growth by their means of subsistence — those means remain closely linked to natural resources.

Nearly three centuries later, we are still struggling to accept the fact that rampant development that provides gains in the short-term are unfavourable when compared to long-term plans that account for environmental concerns. A year after the Uttarakhand flash floods, we are questioning voices that caution against the mushrooming of the dams that pushed us towards such a tragedy.

So, to go back to the first and crucial point: make the Government, industries and NGOs alike more transparent in their environmental regulation. Apart from arguably misguided IB reports, crucial to this process is for impact assessments to be conducted by experts at the planning stage.

But do not dismiss environmental concerns in the process. In spite of the impact of environmental regulation on economic growth, such concerns are necessary for long-term development. Dubbing them anti-national or treating these as a nuisance is no way to go.

At this stage, environmental costs, depletion of natural resources and deforestation are no longer externalities that can be sidelined; we need to revitalise the process of internalising these very genuine costs.

The writer is actively involved in wildlife research and conservation in India