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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Environment Ministry is back to its old days

From one minister who came across as a loose cannon (Jairam Ramesh), to another who is now rarely seen or heard in the media (Jayanthi Natarajan), the dusty corridors of the Environment and Forest Ministry has seen many radical changes these last five years. This month Jayanthi Natarajan will complete one year of being in the Environment Ministry - an appropriate time to analyze how she has fared since she took charge. Natarajan in her first interaction with the media made it clear she that she would maintain a low profile but would continue to talk tough when it came to protecting the nation's natural environment and resources. Her low profile in the media in subsequent months had us convinced that hers would be a stoic but mature response to a Ministry that has courted many a controversy in recent times. The Minister may have got good press, at two international level negotiations, at Durban and at Rio and has succeeded well in ensuring that the country's "development agenda" is not hampered by pressures from the developed world. But on the domestic front, the functioning of this Ministry in the last one year leaves much to be desired. To start with Jayanthi Natarajan can lay claims to being a true green minister. She has given the green signal to every single project that has come to it for clearance, even those with ecologically disastrous consequences. Since she took over she has chaired three meetings of the National Board of Wildlife, a premier decision making body that decides whether a crucial wildlife habitat should be signed away or not for a road or a dam project, not even one project has got a firm no. And then there are projects which her own ministry's Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) has advised her to reject. For instance the 300 MW Alaknanda hydro-electric project is being constructed on the main tributary of the Ganga- by private company GMR. The Forest Advisory Committee and the Wildlife Institute of India had both recommended rejecting the project, because of the high ecological importance of the area. But Natarajan over-ruled her own committee and gave a yes, despite the fact that the dam will destroy part of the buffer of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve rich in biodiversity and home to endangered wildlife such as the such as the snow leopard, brown bear and 16 endangered plant species. The second project that Ms Natarajan cleared, in spite of her own expert committee saying no, is the Lower Demwe hydro project in Arunachal Pradesh. The construction of the dam will involve felling of over 50,000 trees along with submerging the habitat of wild animals like the dolphin, the wild buffalo and the Bengal Florican. And yet Ms Natarajan has given a green signal. The Ministry has as its foremost mandate the protection of India's biodiversity. We have yet to see this Minister, visiting even one national park or tiger reserve nor pass any significant resolution that comes strongly in support of biodiversity. On the positive side, Natarajan has shown that she will not take decisions simply to be in the news, and she studies an issue carefully before responding and when she does, she responds with gravitas. Now, that could be the way forward for a Ministry that has become the most watched in recent times for its decisions. Unfortunately between a minister who couldn't keep his mouth shut, and another who has been largely quiet, the loser has been the environment. Industry-wallahs can cry themselves hoarse about India's growth is being stifled with the "license raj" of the Environment ministry but take a look at official figures to decide if this really true. In 2011, Ministry has granted environmental clearance to 181 coal mines, 267 thermal power plants, 188 steel plants and 106 cement units Further an astounding 210,000 MW of thermal power capacity , has been cleared, that's 60,000 MW more than what has been proposed till 2017! Jayanthi Natarajan has not courted controversy, but that's not good enough. She hasn't taken any tough decisions either.

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