February 02, 2011

life in general & financial markets: (part 2) the farce that is india's environment ministry

There is an insightful story in the latest issue (dated 7 Feb '11) of weekly Outlook magazine on India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh's failure to deliver on the ground. I share it below.

Here goes (pics below are from Outlook's story itself):

Sandipan Chatterjee
It won’t rain forever Vedanta bauxite refinery plant in the Niyamgiri hills, Orissa

The Green Turns Grey
The environment minister promised much, but his flip-flops of late raise concern
Anuradha Raman

Mr Compromised
  • Vedanta In ’09, Jairam said no to mining. Now says yes to refinery expansion though water is scarce.
  • Polavaram dam Gives forest clearance, then seeks explanation
  • Posco Under litigation as the ministry says yes to forest clearance for iron ore/steel plant
  • Lavasa township Ministry report says ecologically sensitive Ghats will be affected. Later, Jairam lets off promoters with a fine.
  • National Green Tribunal Set up after dismantling the National Environment Tribunal. It allows any party (including violators) to appeal against decisions.
Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh is fast discovering that striking a balance between the environment, wildlife, coastal zones, forests and corporate lobbies can be quite a minefield. On one side, whispers abound on how the minister missed out on being elevated to cabinet rank because of his green-is-my-favourite-colour theme song while, on the other, environmentalists express disappointment that he has not lived up to all the promises made. While no one disputes that the minister has raised awareness (or that he is a huge improvement on his predecessors), a perception is gaining ground that the minister has not quite delivered.
Indeed, the U-turns done by the ministry under his stewardship has baffled many. Vedanta, Polavaram, the Lavasa township and the coastal regulatory laws are some of the big issues on which Jairam not only appears to have backtracked but also compromised. And we are not even talking of the smaller projects that have not got much media attention. Somewhere down the line, the minister appears to have lost the goodwill of the very people whose causes he wants to champion. He says (see interview) he’s got his share of brickbats and bouquets. But such admissions alone will not help. Says Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), “One expected transparent, participatory, environment-friendly policies and practices from someone who claims he believes in these values. When you do not see that, one is disappointed.”
Himanshu adds here that Jairam is more accessible and responsive than his predecessor, A. Raja, and initial action taken on projects like Posco, Vedanta, Adarsh apartments, the Navi Mumbai airport, the Lavasa project and  Maheshwar, among others, are welcome in parts. But there have also been many reversals, which some activists describe as the result of “a forked-tongue approach”. There are many who argue the minister should have initiated systemic actions. “Systems on compliance, transparency, better EIAS (environment impact assessments), greater participation by the affected people, nailing the fraudulent officers in charge of projects are some of the things he should have done. The minister hasn’t, raising doubts on whose side he is batting for.”
The environmentalists say inaction has led to a lot of confusion on the approval of big projects. For example, Jairam’s public utterings showing his willingness to allow the Vedanta refinery to expand after saying no to mining has muddied matters. “Where is the water for the refinery going to come from? Vedanta has already exhausted the streams nearby,” says Shankar Balakrishnan of Campaign for Survival and Dignity. Adds Himanshu, “While the minister earned praise for saying no to mining, he is sending confusing signals by agreeing to the expansion of the refinery.”
Similarly on Posco, Shankar argues that the ministry has not taken into account the views of the local people. “The Forest Rights Act needs to be complied with. But how come the environment ministry keeps giving approvals and then puts conditions? It’s confusing,” he says. Posco’s iron-ore mine, steel plant and private port (India’s largest foreign investment of Rs 52,000 crore) was granted forest clearance in 2009 and then a condition was added that it was subject to clearance of the Forest Rights Act (FRA)! Later, under pressure, a committee was appointed by the ministry to look at the FRA clearance under the stewardship of an official, in whose tenure an environment clearance was given to the project way back in ’05.
In Andhra Pradesh, there’s the controversial Polavaram dam which threatens to displace close to two lakh people, another example of how Jairam’s ministry approves and then disapproves. His ministry gave a forest clearance on July 28, 2010, without looking into the rights of the people. Prior to Jairam taking over, an environment clearance had already been sought for the project in ’05. While Jairam wrote in October 2010 to the Andhra CM enquiring whether the concerns of the local community had been factored in, little has come of it so far.
The Polavaram project threatens to displace mostly people from the marginalised adivasi communities. The project requires approximately 3,700 hectares of forest land as well as the sanction of the majority of these communities (who are entitled under the Forest Rights Act). The ministry granted the final forest clearance for the project in December ’09, stating that the approval is based on the assurance of the Andhra government that there are no rights to be settled under the Forest Rights Act in the project area. This, when the ministry’s own circular requires that the gram sabhas—not the state government—have to certify to the proper implementation of the law and have to grant their consent.
The ministry’s conditional clearance to the Lavasa township, said to have the backing of Congress ally, the NCP, is also intriguing. As per the environment ministry report, the Rs 3,000-crore hill town near Pune threatens to impact the Western Ghats. But now the builders have been let off with just a rap on the knuckles—in this case just a penalty.
Levelled off Aerial view of the Lavasa cityscape, in the core of the Western Ghats. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)
Adding to the list of damp squibs is Jairam’s inability to put transparent systems in place. Right from when he took over, environment groups had advised that conflict of interest rules be spelt out clearly, especially when it came to appointments on the Environment Assessment Committee on river valley and hydroelectric projects. The committee’s objective is to evaluate the environmental and social impacts of large dams and also look at no-dam options, and decide if the impact of the proposals are acceptable or not and if the project is viable.
The ministry has done little to appoint people with the right credentials. The current chairperson is a man who has served on the National Committee of the International Commission on Large Dams (INCOLD), a rabidly pro-large dam organisation which essentially works as a lobbying mechanism!
Meanwhile, what is really troubling environmentalists is the undue haste the ministry is showing in approving projects. Says Ritwick Datta, a lawyer who sought information under the RTI Act, “The minister’s own response was that as many as 535 projects of the total 769 projects have been approved and six were rejected! The period for which information was sought was from August 1, 2009, till July 31, 2010.”
On his part, Jairam says he is no enviro-caliph. But it’s time he becomes one, say environment experts.

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