Sanctuary Cover Story February 2012:A ministry that the late Prime Minster, Indira Gandhi, had farsightedly set up to defend the survival assets of the poor – forests, grasslands, wetlands, rivers, lakes, shores and mountains – against the ambitions of the rich, is being purposefully weakened. After her death in 1984, ecologically speaking, everything began to go downhill for India. And this is the direction towards which we seem to be resolutely committed even today.
While he was the Minister in charge, Jairam Ramesh, had elevated the profile of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and resurrected its image… somewhat. He even placed a glass door on his cabin to send a symbolic signal about how transparent things would be. He then went about his business professionally, in a way that won him the respect of India and the world. But in the process he ran foul of the Prime Minister’s Office, which discovered that good governance meant jettisoning many of its environmentally-destructive projects: “Jairam Ramesh is impeding India’s development and affecting GDP growth,” was the view of India’s economists, corporate heads and politicians, most of them openly skeptical about the dangers of biodiversity loss and climate change.
Interestingly, during Ramesh’s tenure, few projects if any were actually denied clearance. Despite the media blitz over his initial denial to the POSCO Steel Plant in Orissa, the airport in Navi Mumbai, the Lavasa Lake City Project near Pune, the Adarsh Housing Society in Mumbai and Nirma’s Cement Factory in Gujarat, all these projects seem confident that they will ‘somehow’ obtain clearances. Worse, despite all the reports on news channels and on the front pages of national dailies, Ramesh actually set about diluting past laws such as the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1990 – particularly where it related to the Coastal Regulation Zone Rules. In other words, environmental damage that used to be illegal in the past would now be perfectly legal. Why? Because he finally gave in and chose to usher in populist policies designed to win votes at the cost of forests.
For all his failures, however, Jairam did temporarily infuse a burst of energy into a nation where environmental issues rarely make front page news. By putting environment protection high up there in the public psyche, he gifted many cynical, jaded conservationists and NGOs a second wind. On the tiger front, he began to pronounce high-profile decisions in favour of protection. On the climate change front, he won the respect of the world for his logical and pragmatic approach.
Which is why he was virtually forced to abandon a moribund Ministry into which he had magically breathed life. Tragically, in the months before he left, he seemed to have lost both interest and direction and actually reversed or diluted the effectiveness of most of the policies he fought tooth and nail to insinuate into the government’s decision making process.
Enter Jayanthi Natarajan
Ramesh was replaced by Jayanthi Natarajan, a confirmed Congress party loyalist who could be trusted to do what she was told (quite the opposite of Ramesh, who was regarded as the ‘dark horse’ of the government). Instantly, experts and seasoned environmental journalists opined that with the 2014 election looming large, she would be tasked with winning over the massive tribal vote, while simultaneously working to appease the corporate sector, which was (needlessly) uncomfortable with Ramesh. They were not far from wrong. Natarajan has stayed firmly on the fence on most issues and her greatest success has been her ability to take environmental issues off the front pages.
As if to dispel any doubt about her position on environmental protection, within days of taking over, she stated, “The past is over.” The message went out that she would be taking speedy decisions on major projects such as Vedanta. She also confirmed that there would be “one window clearance (to facilitate industrial projects)” and once given, clearances would not be altered, or revoked.
In early January 2012, Natarajan, accused the Uttar Pradesh Government of being “lackadaisical and indifferent” about the implementation of river conservation projects on the Ganga and its tributaries. Chief Minister Mayawati, was justifiably taken to task on the issue of the highly-polluted 102 km.-long Aami river, lifeline of four districts in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The Minister actually seemed to be taking her job seriously but analysts were quick to point out that even worse problems in states where her party or allies were in charge were treated with more deference.
The recent clearance of the Alaknanda-Badrinath Hydro Project, proposed by the GMR group, which had been rejected twice by the Forest Advisory Committee is a case in point. The new minister has also shot off a letter to the European Union Commissioner for Climate and Energy, demanding a reversal of the carbon tax on airline emissions. The proposal for go/no-go classification of the country’s coal-bearing areas for mining which had been proposed by Jairam Ramesh has also been revoked, with the Ministry saying that it will decide on green clearances for projects based on existing legal provisions. This was decided at a meeting of the Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. No surprises as to why it did not pass muster with the GoM.
The Vedanta Group has been quick to take advantage of the new wind that is blowing. It has withdrawn its petition against the MoEF at the National Green Tribunal and has made a fresh plea to obtain environmental clearance for its aluminium refinery at Lanjigarh with the MoEF to get its project fast tracked. The MoEF under Ramesh had cancelled environmental clearance to the Orissa Mining Corporation which is in agreement with the Vedanta Group Company Sterlite for bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills.
Most of Ramesh’s initiatives have now been shelved and hardly any new policies have been announced. The guidelines toward declaring core tiger habitats in tiger reserves are yet to see the light of day. Similarly the draft policy of an eco-tax on the tourism sector in tiger reserves has come to a standstill.
It would seem that the Ministry has gone back to its old bureaucratic ways of functioning.
The big wildlife slide
T.R. Balu, A. Raja, Jairam Ramesh or Jayanthi Natarajan – in recent times virtually every Indian Environment Minister has used the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL), headed by the Prime Minister, as a clearing house for industrial projects wanting to overcome protective laws that placed wildlife areas out of reach. The non-official members of the NBWL protested. Seriously protested. They were totally ignored. What a far cry from the days when the likes of Indira Gandhi relied on such non-official members to define national priorities so that our vanishing biodiversity, our rivers, wetlands and coasts, and all the species therein, were protected for posterity. In the last meeting of the Standing Committee of the NBWL that he chaired, Jairam Ramesh cleared as many as 59 proposals in Protected Areas (PAs) in two hours. That’s roughly two minutes per industrial project… a feat worthy of a (dubious) Guinness Record!
In response the non-official members wrote to the new Minister in charge, stating: PAs are the last refuges of many endangered and endemic species, and of our biodiversity, and as we well know they are already stressed and fragmented. Many of the proposals require clearances that adversely impact these habitats, thereby further endangering wildlife. Yet, the usual practice is to place a large number of proposals – including projects like dams, highways, mines – in a single meeting of the Standing Committee, and its members are expected to decide their fate in the space of just an hour or two.
‘Grim Reaper’ of Durban?
Predictably, the letter did not get the desired response. Not even a reply to date. Away from India there was worse to come.
On the last day of the UN climate talks in Durban, Avaaz – the global on-line campaigning community with 10 million members – placed a graphic ad in the Financial Times that featured India as one of four countries along with USA, Canada and Japan as ‘Grim Reapers’ bringing climate death and destruction to Africa.
In contrast, Jayanthi Natarajan’s speech at Durban was published in the media with a favourable endorsement of her stand, which reversed the position taken by India just a year ago at Durban’s COP 17 that all countries, rich or poor, had to accept legally-binding conditions to cut carbon emissions.
On her return, Natarajan proudly announced in the Rajya Sabha, “There is no question of signing a legally-binding agreement at this point of our development. We need to make sure that our development does not suffer.”
The bottom line
Many more citizens will have to die at the hands of climate change before those in whose hands the good ship India has been placed understand that water and food shortages will plunge the subcontinent into external and internal wars from which neither the rich nor poor will be immune. India is more vulnerable than even the small ocean states, which might even find new homes if good people gather across the world to hold concerts to raise money for them to buy their way in to, say Australia! With the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere 392 ppm and rising, India must accept that bravado will not shield more than a billion souls from the impact of melting glaciers, rising seas, super cyclones, withering wetlands, dwindling rivers and uncertain climate.
Is there a way out? Yes, there is. And it involves a guarantee of equity between the rich and poor of India, just as it does between rich and poor nations. It also involves a change in the position taken by shrill, but out-of-touch-with-reality social activists who imagine that the poor in India can suddenly be lifted from their misery by consuming, in the short run, the very resources that they need for survival in the long run. The issue is less complicated than most imagine. Without genuine equity there can be no ecological resurrection in India. Without ecological resurrection, there can be no economic future.
And that’s the bottom line!
Published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 1, February 2012