Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Convenient Untruth

India must achieve 8-8.5 percent growth regardless of what happens in the world economy. This growth must be achieved whatever be the circumstances,” said prime minis­ter Manmohan Singh recently. The hurdles in the way, it was diagnosed, “were cumbersome (environment) processes in­volved in getting statutory clearances.”
Making environment, forest and wildlife laws the scapegoat for a sluggish economy (if you can call it that at 6 percent when the US and UK economies scrape 1.5-2 percent) has found favour with the media too, to the extent that environmental regulations are being labelled “green terror”.
The diagnosis could be called naive, if it weren’t for its ominous implications, given that it espouses growth at whatever cost, “whatever the circumstances”. But more on that later. First, doesn’t it stand to reason that a slow global economy and plunging financial markets will have an impact on the Indian economy? Besides, there is a multitude of factors that impact an economy. To pin the blame on environ­ment concerns is not just simplistic; it’s a false premise – a convenient untruth.
To bust the myth of ‘green impediments’ statistics have been highlighted before, but they merit repetition. It is also pertinent to understand the genesis of this flawed concept of ‘green imperialism’, the genesis of which, according to an editorial in a
 leading newsweekly, was in 2009, when Jairam Ramesh, both hailed and hated as a green messiah, took charge of the Parya­varan Bhawan. During his tenure between June 2009 and July 2011, well over 95 per ­cent of projects that came to the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) sailed through the green ‘hurdles’. We don’t have a similar figure for the period when the DMK held the environment portfolio, but suffice to say that it was during their stint that dilutions to the Environment Protec­tion Act were initiated, including weaken­ing the public consultation process. Rules were bent, and regulations such as those relating to the coastal regulation zones (CRZ) were amended to accommodate mega-projects of those who enjoyed prox­imity with the concerned minister.
What Ramesh did was to bring the ‘de­velopment vs. conservation’ debate to the centre-stage; but most projects that had been stalled eventually got the green flag, be it Lavasa, or Posco or the airport at Navi Mumbai. One of the very few that were denied was Vedanta’s alumina plant at Niyamgiri, and we know whom we owe that one to.
Coal mining is another contentious issue. Urged by the coal ministry, MoEF prepared a ‘go/no-go’ categorisation for mining in forest areas, defining biodiversity-rich for­ests as ‘no-go’ (though, legally speaking, all forests are ‘no-go’ according to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980). Eventually, after a series of dilutions due to “pressures from higher-ups”, the MoEF ceded over 80% of the so-called ‘no-go’ biodiversity-rich forests to mining. This included proposed elephant reserves in Hasdeo-Anand in Chhattisgarh, and Chiriya in Saranda – the world’s largest, finest sal forest and tracts in the tiger-rich central Indian landscape. In the one year since Natarajan took charge, the MoEF has cleared 1,126 propos­als involving diversion of 15,639 hectares of forest land.
Another oft-repeated accusation is that blocked forest clearances are the cause behind coal shortage and India’s energy crisis. Here’s a reality check: Between 1982 and 2012, the MoEF rejected only 18 of the 384 applications for coal blocks. It gave forest clearances to 215, while another 75 got an in-principle approval, which usually leads to full clearance. The rest are either pending with the state or central govern­ments or were withdrawn.
The clearance is also getting faster. An MoEF document shows that between 1982 and 1999, the average time was five years to give full clearance. During the BJP-led government between 2000 and 2004, this reduced to three years, and further to 17 months during the regime of UPA I. After 2009, this has declined to 11 months.
Let’s assess the 11th plan period till August 2011: the MoEF has granted envi­ronmental clearances to 181 coal mines with a combined capacity of 583 million tonnes per annum, and forest clearances to 113 mines, giving away 26,000 hectares of forest land for coal. These clearances are expected to double our coal capacity. The 11th and 12th five-year plans target 1,50,000 MW of additional thermal power capacity to be created and set up by 2017. Between 2006 and August 2011, clearances were granted for 2,10,000 MW of thermal power capacity: 40 percent in excess of our proposed requirement till 2017.
Fact is, in key sectors like power, coal, steel and cement, the clearances given exceed targets. Capacity in energy and coal lies under or unutlised, while project pro­ponents clamour for clearances for new projects, since these give them the owner­ship of valuable natural resources: land, water and minerals.
No wonder India Inc., backed by power­ful politicians, perpetuates this convenient untruth, terming environment norms the new ‘licence raj’, a green avtaar of the red tapeism that had ‘throttled’ the economy before liberalisation.
As is evident, it is not industry and infra­structure that is being short-changed, it is the environment. Why then is the MoEF being vilified for doing its job, which is protecting environment, forests and wild­life, which some would say is debatable given the extent of clearances?
Protecting environment is not, as I have pointed out before, about “saving a few sundry animals”, as dismissed infamously by a bureaucrat. Saving forests is critical not just for sustained growth but to protect the basic life support systems: water, clean air, soil fertility. Forests are a key influ­encer of the monsoons; they nourish and nurture our rivers and soils. Crucial, given that two out of every three Indians still depend on agriculture or related employ­ment. Monsoons are a key factor in pulling down the GDP, and some estimates suggest that if ecological-damage were consid­ered as lost capital, India’s GDP would be reduced by nearly six percent. If we are to take into account future climate projects, the situation gets graver: Lord Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank who authored the path-breaking report, The Economics of Climate Change, is quoted as saying that a business-as-usual scenario could shrink the world economy by at least five percent – and possibly as much as 20 percent. It is well established that biodiversity conservation is the basis of eco-system functioning. Mangroves, for example, are not only aquatic nurseries that sustain a healthy fish stock, but also serve as bio-shields, providing protection from devastating storms and tidal waves. A study (Das, S., 2007) investigating the impact of the Orissa super cyclone of Oc­tober 1999 established that coastal villages shielded by mangroves suffered much less damage compared to those that lacked mangrove protection. This was further established during the devastating tsunami of 2004 where fishing villages under direct physical coverage of the mangroves were protected from the fury of the tsunami.
The need of the hour clearly is to strengthen, not weaken, environment regulations. Instead, the onslaught to do away with green regulations is relentless, and it isn’t just the tiger and other critically endan­gered wildlife – for tiger forests have rich coal deposits – that are being trampled over as we hurtle toward ‘growth’; it is the democratic processes of public hear­ing and consultation that are in the dock. Consider this fact: the group of ministers (GoM) established to ‘rationalise’ coal min­ing in forests recommended scrapping ‘no-go’ areas and public hearings.
The cacophony is shrill, albeit hysteri­cal, with ‘solutions’ ranging from shutting down the MoEF to doing away with man­datory checks and balances, offering in­stead to punish violators – after the forest is razed, the river poisoned, the wetland bulldozed, the wildlife exterminated. Like, we are told helpfully, being fined for a traf­fic violation. This, in our country, where monitoring systems are non-existent, and punishment for environment crimes a cruel joke. Think Bhopal.
The latest salvo is the proposed national investment board (NIB), which, we are informed, “will boost investment by doing away with the ‘hated licence raj’ “. The NIB is envisaged to ensure that mega projects sail through, dismantling the regulatory systems for green clearances, without bothering about their environmental and social impacts. With no checks and bal­ances, no provisions for appeal, the NIB appears to be a law onto itself, though it’s unclear how the board’s powers will reconcile with the legal framework – the Environment Protection Act, 1986, Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and Wildlife Pro­tection Act, 1972 – which in its mandate also includes protection of wildlife and forest against various pressures, and com­peting uses on natural habitat including infrastructure development.
Equally importantly, how will the NIB function vis-a-vis the various directives of the Supreme Court, which ensure that economic imperatives are not the only consideration for big-ticket projects? These concerns are well-reflected in the feisty letter written to the prime minister, the in­tended chair of the NIB, by Natarajan who questions its hasty formation and purpose. She expresses grave concerns about its constitutional breach, the consequences to governance and responsibility to the legislature. If the NIB overrules the far-reaching decisions of the MoEF, who will be accountable? Are the law and finance ministries and the PMO, envisaged as the three members of NIB, competent to take nuanced decisions which have implica­tions on livelihoods and biodiversity, issues on which they have little knowledge? Can we afford to ignore environment costs in development concerns? The mining and industrial towns of Chandrapur, Vapi and Ludhiana are prime examples of environ­ment consequences being ignored, and are today living hell-holes, ravaged by diseases like lung and skin infections, TB and cancer.
Another point is, how will the NIB lure investors if hasty decisions taken without due diligence lead to dispute and unrest? Across India, one major cause for social unrest and uprising is land acquisition for infrastructure projects and development. At the 11th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 11 to CBD) held in October in Hyderabad was a group of protesting villagers from the sal forest in Mahan, demanding that their forests be protected from being pillaged for coal. The womenfolk of farmers and fisher­men from Konkan travelled to Bathinda in Punjab to understand the health impacts of thermal power plants, which are proposed along the coast. They do not want cancer in their backyard. Mangroves, which support a rich diversity, are the lifeline of fisherfolk, and along the Indian coastline, the fishing community is up in arms against the setting up of thermal power plants, ports and spe­cial economic zones (SEZs) which wipe out mangroves – and their livelihood.
The NIB offers little recourse to them – the farmer and the fisherman, the aam aadmi, whose cause our government claims to espouse. Large investors may appeal to the NIB if aggrieved by the deci­sion of the MoEF, but the NIB makes no mention of similar recourse for the ag­grieved communities. The NIB only serves the cause of the large investor, leaving no room for the concerns and grievances of ordinary citizens and stakeholders. How will this fulfil the criteria of ‘inclusive growth’, that is cited as the current govern­ment’s fundamental objective? Why is the world’s most vibrant democracy bending over backwards for large investors, sacri­ficing democratic tenets and key consider­ations like public health, environment and biodiversity? 

This article was first published in the November 15 issue of Governance Now

Prerna Singh Bindra is a member, National Board of Wildlife, Sr Consultant, WCS-India Program and Editor, TigerLink