G R O U N D   Z E R O

Prakash Javadekar, please be Mr Green
Instead of operating like a stealth bomber to blast out environmental roadblocks, Javadekar should work towards reforming the environmental clearance mechanism in a transparent consultative process
Raj Chengappa

Raj ChengappaAs a BJP national spokesperson, Prakash Javadekar was a familiar face on prime time television as a trenchant critic of the UPA government — a task he immensely enjoyed. Now that he wears the twin hats of Union Minister of State for Information and Environment (both with independent charge), Javadekar will soon find that the boot is on his opponent’s foot and prepare himself for the expected kicks.

Within a fortnight of Narendra Modi’s government taking charge, the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) announced that it had cleared the raising of the height of the controversial Narmada Dam by 17 metres. That action would meet the long-standing demand of Gujarat, which Modi had articulated when he was its Chief Minister, to supply more hydro-power and water to the state.

Prakash JavadekarThe proposal had been in the works for many years and the Supreme Court while approving the raising of the height of the dam had wanted all four affected states — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat — to ensure that the impact on environment was minimised and the affected people properly resettled and rehabilitated. The speed with which the Modi government acted in announcing the decision raised eyebrows and led to a storm of protest from environmentalists.

Medha Patkar, the spearhead of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, who had fought for many years for the rights of those who were displaced by the construction of the dam, pointed out that raising the height would adversely impact another quarter of a million people living around it. While the Gujarat government naturally welcomed the decision, Javadekar, despite being the Information and Environment Minister, did not clarify as to why and how the new government had cleared it.

Medha PatkarUnmindful of the criticism, Javadekar then announced that he would fast-track environmental clearances for infrastructure projects near the Line of Actual Control so that India could shore up its defence against China. Again there was no information released as to what the projects were, the environmental clearances needed and what was holding it up. Both these signals made Indian industry, which had been complaining of long delays in environmental clearance as a major bottleneck, cheer from the sidelines but raised the hackles of ecologists.

The impression rapidly gaining ground is that unlike the UPA government, Modi Sarkar would be more industry friendly when it came to environmental clearances. There is little doubt that the Union Environment Ministry is in need of urgent reforms. Industry has complained that the ministry takes too long to give clearances and more often than not either blocks projects that are vital for India’s development or puts stringent conditions that make it unviable. That, however, maybe an exaggeration, for barring a few high profile projects like Posco in Orissa, a majority of the projects have been cleared by the Environment Ministry in recent years, though not with the requisite speed.

Javadekar instead of indulging in optics should concentrate on building public confidence that as the new custodian of India’s environment he would do everything to safeguard the country’s fragile ecology. For a start he should ensure transparency and accountability in every decision his ministry takes, including giving clearance to raise the height of the Narmada Dam. Lest Javadekar forget, it was the Sangh Parivar that had stringently opposed dams coming up in Uttarakhand and ensured that when a BJP government was in power these were blocked or stalled.

Instead of operating like a stealth bomber to blast out environmental roadblocks, Javadekar should work towards reforming the environmental clearance mechanism in a transparent consultative process. The urgent requirement is to have a single-point independent regulator for environment clearances. This should be equipped with experts that have the wherewithal to assess the environmental impact of a complex range of projects seeking clearance and ensure that they do it in a time-bound manner so that industry has no complaints.

There is more to the Environment Ministry than just being a watchdog. Since Modi has brought climate change into its fold, Javadekar has to work towards implementing the national action plan on climate change that had been initiated by the UPA government but not adequately followed up. There are also concerns raised about India’s dwindling forest cover and vanishing wildlife.

Javadekar’s bio-data shows that he was once president of the India Chapter of the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE) that helps guide public policy on environment and sustainability. So rather than being trigger happy with environmental clearances, Javadekar should work towards bringing comprehensive and effective reforms in the Environment Ministry while ensuring that the public is always kept in the loop. Rather than please a few industrialists he should endear himself to the nation as Mr Green.





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