Dark clouds overthe green cover

PREETI MEHRA | Updated on January 27, 2018

Javadekar says his Ministry is seen as a roadblock to development, and his mission is to alter it KR DEEPAK

In the name of decentralisation, the Modi government is abandoning its environmental protection duties

When the Narendra Modi government was swept to power in 2014, it promised an agenda that balanced industrial development with carefully thought-out environmental checks and balances.

To translate that into action, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests was renamed by appending the tag of ‘Climate Change’, signalling a readiness to tackle global warming. Similarly, the Ministry of Water Resources was rechristened the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation. Heading the key ministries were Ministers perceived as “go-getters”: Prakash Javadekar and Uma Bharti.

But soon after taking charge, Javadekar redefined his mission. He argued that the environment ministry under the previous UPA regimes had acquired an image of being a “roadblock” to foreign investment. His efforts, he made clear, would be to change that image.

As if to complement the ministry’s efforts, the government acted on an Intelligence Bureau report that suggested that “anti-national” NGOs working in the environment space were hampering projects. Investigations were launched against hundreds of organisations; the move was applauded by sections of the industry as indicative of a government that meant business. But it set the template for an uneasy working relationship between environment activists and the ministry.

To facilitate the ‘ease of doing business’, in October 2015 the draft Environment (Amendments) Bill 2015 was put up for public comment. It suggested categorising environmental violations as ‘substantial’, ‘non-substantial’ and ‘minor.’ Activists said it was a ruse to brush businesses’ violations under the carpet.

Forsaking its duties

To tweak existing laws, the ministry issued rules and notifications, the burden of which in many cases was to hand over central powers to the States in the name of promoting federalism. Lawyer Ritwick Dutta of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment notes: “The Centre is abdicating its constitutional duty and shifting the responsibility to the States – and, in the case of mines, even to a district environment committee. On the other hand, gram panchayats are being kept out of the decision-making process.”

Former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh feels decentralisation is a recipe for disaster as “State governments will merrily give clearances.” He notes that there is a move to privatise degraded forest lands, ignoring community forests rights. “In 2011, when I was Minister, there was a historic passover of the bamboo trade in Mende Lekha in Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra from the forest department to the village gram sabha.” But the current government reversed it.

Ramesh questions the role that Javadekar wants to play. “If the Environment Minister wants to be judged by the number of clearances he has given, it is a sad day for India’s environment.”

Manoj Misra, Convenor of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, feels the government’s orientation has changed. “The start was promising, with expressions of good intent, but that hasn’t translated into good action,” he says.

Dutta feels the recent announcement that 36 ‘white industries’ do not need environment clearances is regressive. “Though manufacturing biscuits or nail cutters may sound harmless, the manufacturing process may not be pollution-free,” he points out.

Ramesh characterises the ministry’s river policy “a complete setback”. He says, “I had taken a tough decision that we should not have hydel projects in the Upper Ganga, but the government has now resurrected a 1916 agreement from British times to justify building dams, which can be detrimental to the environment.”

Misra sums up the bleak scenario thus: “The future for environment protection does not inspire confidence.”

Published on May 20, 2016

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