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Clearing the air PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 26 December 2013 02:47
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In the environment ministry, Moily must reset procedures, weed out opacity and bias.

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi may now profess concern about the delays being caused by the environment ministry — which is what led to Jayanthi Natarajan "voluntarily" going back to the party — but the fact is that a certain kind of obstructionist environmental activism was not frowned upon and even encouraged earlier. In the Niyamgiri case, for instance, it wasn't a coincidence that the environment ministry withheld clearances for the project just the day before Gandhi landed there. Successive environment ministers refusing to allow even trials of genetically modified food — globally, the land under GM acreage is up from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to more than 170 million hectares in 2012 — is another example.

Indeed, the environment ministry was no neutral arbiter. There were well-known cases, on the other hand, of the ministry packing panels with experts who were certain to vote against industrial projects. When 16 of the 17 members of a panel to examine hydroelectric power projects were well-known activists — there was just a lone member from the Central Electricity Authority — industry even protested to the prime minister. In the equally well-publicised case of the Rs 50,000 crore Posco steel project, the bias was so strong that the expert group inquiring into the project complained about the company not trying to identify the Schedule Tribe population that would be affected — as even the environment ministry was constrained to accept later, the project was not even located in a Fifth Schedule Area where tribals are known to be found.

Given the long delays — in some cases, years — in projects receiving clearances, new minister Veerappa Moily's task is to ensure that his officers stick to timelines. But even more important will be weeding out bias and framing objective standards that don't depend upon the whims and fancies of the individuals on the panels. After all, most developed countries have a lot more industry, much more urbanisation, and in many cases, considerably more mining than India has, and yet these countries have a far cleaner environment. Moily has an impressive track record in terms of cleaning up the mess left by his predecessor in the petroleum ministry. Hopefully, he will be able to bring the same focus to his new job.

 
 

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