Preserving the environment, it is a no-brainer, is vital for the country, but how do developed countries build industry, allow mining, even build new cities and still manage to have a cleaner environment than India which tries to stifle all of these activities? Partly because, over the years, the environment ministry has become more activist and less active. While the best example of this was former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan not agreeing to even field trials of genetically modified crops, there are cases where the expert committees set up to evaluate projects were stuffed with environmental activists who were certain to vote against a project—of the 17 members on the one on hydroelectric power projects, just one member was from the Central Electricity Authority. In the case of the Posco project this led to a situation where, while working out the baseline projections, one set of experts said 70% of the area was covered by various kinds of forests and trees while a former environment secretary—another expert—said it was mainly sandy with some scrub forest. When one of the expert objections to the project was that no attempt had been made to identify the tribals who would be dislocated, even the environment ministry was constrained to admit the Posco site was not a Fifth Schedule Area (where tribals are found). The bias of the ministry, of course, was most evident when the clearance for Vedanta’s Niyamgiri project was withheld just the day before Rahul Gandhi addressed the tribals and said he was their sipahi, protecting their God—it’s a different matter that Rahul Gandhi himself seems to have had a change of heart.
In other cases, as FE pointed out on Wednesday, there are several projects that don’t require too much of a push to get cleared and have been pending well above the 150-day timeline laid down by the ministry—the R50,000 crore Posco steel project, for instance, has been languishing for one reason or another since 2007. The Mahan coal block which has R10,000 crore of investment riding on it has been stuck for over two years but got its Stage I environmental clearance in February 2012—Stage II which should not take that long, however, continues to hang fire for almost two years now.
While it is a good thing new minister Veerappa Moily has made it clear he intends quickening the pace of activity, he needs to ensure that objective standards