Dust in our Eyes

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In its bid to enhance its populist and rich-friendly ‘ease of doing business’ in India, the Narendra Modi government has flamboyantly flouted some major environmental rules

Sharad Gupta

Sharad Gupta

Sharad Gupta is a political commentator with over 30 years experience of working with publications like The Times of India, The Indian Express, India Today, Hindustan and Dainik Bhaskar. He is presently Senior Editor with Parliamentarian

Two important though unrelated events took place in India during May this year that might help people gauge the importance of Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). First was the tragic death of Union Minister Anil Madhav Dave, who was hale, hearty and physically supremely fit. And second was two years sentence pronounced by a CBI court to former Coal Secretary HC Gupta for irregular allotment of coal blocks during United Progressive Alliance’s Manmohan Singh-led government.

Let us talk about Dave first. He was a genuine environmentalist. All issues related to the environment were close to his heart. Before taking charge of the ministry, Dave had undertaken a lot of projects for conservation of the environment. These included cleaning of rivers and ponds, digging new ponds for water conservation and most importantly, planting new saplings to increase green cover. All this was done in his personal capacity, sans any portfolio to manage.

The UPA Government left behind a legacy of weakened safeguards for environment and forests. The Modi government weakened that further. In the name of facilitating ‘ease of business’, the MoEFCC, then under Minister Prakash Javadekar, sanctioned mining requests by industrialists and corporates even in core forest areas. Javadekar, however, was shifted to Human Resource Development (HRD) in the cabinet reshuffle effected last year. By then he had already cleared over 300 projects of coal and non-coal mining.

Non-coal projects included excavation of sand, bajri, stone and gravel mining. The 68 coal projects sanctioned under Javadekar amounted to digging 164.29 MTPA (million tonnes per annum). Within a year and half of Modi coming to power in May 2014, the environment ministry had given 788 large-scale industrial projects the environmental go-ahead.

Projects worth Rs.503,750 crore were given environment clearance across the country until May last year. Maharashtra topped the list with 35 projects worth Rs.135,634 crore, followed by Andhra Pradesh with 11 projects worth Rs.93, 738.82 crore and Gujarat with 19 projects worth Rs.42,373.1 crore.

Soot Suits

This brought into focus the court decision to indict former coal secretary HC Gupta and two other officials for having allotted coal blocks irrationally and in a non-transparent manner. The court, however, allowed the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, holding charge of Coal Ministry, to go scot-free believing his arguments that he was kept in the dark by Gupta.

But the magnitude of coal mining has increased many folds under NDA government as compared to under UPA government. So much so that India has almost stopped importing coal from Indonesia and Australia.

The Modi Government has altered a number of rules to facilitate large-scale mining in forests. The first rule changed by it was doing away of the pre-condition of getting an approval of tribal village councils before taking up a developmental project in forests inhabited by them. This is a must under the Environmental Protection Act, 1986.

This allowed big industrialists like Adani, Jindal and Vedanta to embark upon unbridled mining in forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha. Who can forget the protracted and vociferous protests of Dongria Kondh tribals against the Vedanta group’s attempts to mine the Niyamgiri forests in Odisha?

Deathly Blows

It was in this context that many found Dave an unfit man to head the environment ministry, which was doing everything except conserving the environment. His love for the environment was not less than anybody else’s. His penchant for physical fitness was to the extent that he would start walking briskly even while waiting for an important meeting or at the airport lounge. And that was beside his regular yoga and morning walk.

In fact, people who knew him for decades were slightly concerned when they found him perpetually stressful after taking over MoEFCC. And his sudden death due to cardiac arrest, that too at an age of 61 years, came as a shock to his friends and followers alike.

Doing away with permission of tribal village councils for undertaking a developmental project was just one of the many environment-unfriendly steps taken by the Modi government. It reconstituted the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife by flouting the Wildlife Protection Act’s requirement for independent experts. The new board includes the Gujarat Ecological Education and Research Foundation in place of the mandatory five non-government expert institutions. The government has also replaced 10 individual experts with two new ones, bringing down the total number of outside members from fifteen to just three. The environment ministry allowed coal mines with a capacity of less than 16 million tonnes per annum to expand without conducting a public hearing. Earlier, the capacity limit for such exemption used to be 8 MTPA. The ministry also cleared the one-time expansion of mines with the capacity greater than 20 MTPA if the expansion is not more than six MTPA.

Forest Projects

When it comes to forest clearances, the highest share of total forestland diversion is for mining projects. Out of about 47,473 hectares of land diverted, 29 per cent was for mining. This was followed by total diversion for power generation, accounting for about 25.5 per cent.

The government has also granted considerable clearances for roads and highways, including projects in the coastal areas. About 150 projects have been cleared under this as per government specifications.

In the absence of a public hearing, local people, mostly tribals, have been excluded from the decision-making process. They don’t have a forum to protest either. When a public hearing is held, the utilities have to provide documents about what expansion is planned. These documents are generally in public for a, put where people can see them, circulated to gram panchayats and so on. Irrigation projects affecting less than 2,000 hectares will no longer require environmental clearances. Those occupying less than 10,000 hectares can be cleared by the state governments.

Opaque Moves

In the absence of such transparent processes, there have been numerous complaints from tribals of Raigarh districts in Chhattisgarh of their rich cultivable, irrigated lands and orchards being forcibly occupied by powerful industrialists. Since police is in cahoots with them, villagers are left with little choice but to knock at the court’s doors.

There are instances when those who owned 55-60 acres of orchards, are left fighting a court battle to get repossession of the land which was forcibly occupied by henchmen of the industrialists. Environmentalists or social activists like Ramesh Agarwal who can’t be bought with money are thrashed or even shot to be silenced into submission.

The environment ministry directed the Central Pollution Control Board to reassess the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index, an important criterion for project clearance while keeping intact the moratorium on new industries in critically polluted areas. This was done under the UPA government in September 2013. But even before the review could be completed, the government got changed. The incumbent NDA government lifted the moratorium in eight critically polluted areas – Ghaziabad, Indore, Jharsuguda, Ludhiana, Panipat, Patancheru - Bollaram, Singrauli and Vapi.

Javadekar also changed a provision of the Environmental Impact Assessment rules to allow projects to come up within 5 km of a protected area without clearance from the National Board for Wildlife (NBW). The earlier rule made by the UPA government had made NBW clearance mandatory for projects in these eco-sensitive zones unless they were 10 km or more away.

Ruinous Moves

Even more damaging, the ministry has reduced the parameters for deciding whether a forestland can be opened up for mining and industry. The ministry now uses four parameters instead of six– forest type, biological richness, wildlife value, the density of forest cover, the integrity of the landscape, and hydrological value.

The environment ministry has relaxed the Forest Conservation Act norms for a road, rail and other public works projects that involve cutting trees in forest areas. It has also lifted restrictions in the ecologically sensitive areas near the Line of Actual Control and Naxal-affected districts by giving states more power to issue clearances and lessening the load on the central ministry.

The government is also curtailing the powers of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the body that first hears all challenges to the forest and environmental clearances before they can be taken up by the Supreme Court. The NGT is the only dedicated environmental court in the country, which has been formed as a result of India’s international obligation under the Rio Declaration.

Changing Laws

Possibly the most far-reaching change that the new government hopes to bring about is an overhaul of the five main environmental laws of the country – the Environment Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act, the Wildlife Protection Act, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act. The environment ministry has set up a committee to review these laws and recommend amendments.

At the Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in Paris, attended by Prime Minister Modi and then MoEFCC Minister Javadekar in 2015, India managed to hold on to its position and resist the pressure of the developed countries to cut its emission levels at the cost of its development. However, experts feel that the Paris Agreement was an ‘agreement’ of the big polluters, where no targets have been set for countries to cut emissions. India lost an opportunity to exert the right of development of the world’s poor. Merely four months into the year, the people of India are already experiencing what seems like peak summers. “With such a situation at hand, people should offer water to everyone who visits our doorsteps while working in the sun, like postmen, milkmen, vegetable vendors and keep water in the balcony for the birds,” Modi said in his radio talk.

Air Index

Focusing on bringing down soaring pollution levels in the country, Prime Minister Modi launched India’s first national air quality index (NAQI) in April 2015. The Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur will house the main server of the NAQI which will monitor air quality levels in 10 cities throughout the country. The NAQI will simplify air quality rendition and will help raise awareness about alarming levels of poor air quality. To raise awareness about water conservation the government directed the states of India to ensure that 50 per cent of the work taken up by MNREGA should be for the improvement of water conservation. This includes construction of check dams and de-silting of water bodies. Modi himself asked farmers across the country to adopt modern ways of conserving water.

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