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An agenda for the environment minister

India’s new minister of state for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh cannot change his government’s focus on unsustainable growth, but he can open the environment ministry to civil society engagement and change its status as a willing rubber stamp for industry, says Ashish Kothari

Within days of being made minister of state for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh has created a flurry of excitement in environmental circles. Civil society organisations are debating whether he can revive the moribund Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and take it anywhere near its mission of safeguarding India’s environment. What would he need to do to achieve this?  

He would need to fundamentally challenge his government’s economic policy. It is the fetish for continuous growth, unmindful of its consequences, that is the root cause of not only India’s but the world’s rapid march towards ecological collapse. Every available assessment (such as the one brought out by CII last year) points to the unsustainability of our economic policies.  

But there’s not much that any environment minister can do about this; his ministry simply does not have the clout. This time around, it is not even represented in the Cabinet! 

Short of this, however, there is much that Ramesh can do to restore some degree of sound environmental governance.  

First, he must reopen the MoEF to civil society engagement. Over the last few years, his predecessors and the bureaucrats serving under them systematically undermined the participatory nature of decision-making. ‘Expert’ committees with the crucial role of advising the MoEF on the viability or otherwise of development projects, were stocked with yes-men who would not raise uncomfortable questions. The term ‘expert’ was narrowly defined by the former MoEF secretary Dr Prodipto Gosh to exclude civil society representatives with vast experience but no formal doctorates. Processes meant to strengthen environmental governance, such as the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan that the MoEF itself commissioned in an earlier more open phase, were jettisoned. Engagement with NGOs was restricted to a few of the MoEF’s favourites, such as an industry-established Delhi-based organisation that has received crores of rupees from the MoEF and has, in turn, employed several of its officials!  

Most blatant was how people with clear conflict of interest were put in key positions. For instance, the MoEF’s Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley and Hydropower Projects was chaired by P Abraham, who is also on the board of several hydropower and dam companies! During his tenure, many of these companies applied for clearance with the MoEF. Similarly, the National Biodiversity Authority’s committee that considers applications for accessing India’s biological resources, has as its members representatives of the very government institutions that routinely make the applications, and even the representative of seed multinational Syngenta, notorious the world over for biopiracy and unethical practices. Ramesh has already sent a positive signal by seeking Abraham’s resignation, and has promised to move on the other complaints.  

Second, Ramesh has to rescue the MoEF from its current status as a willing rubber stamp for industry. In the last decade or so, the MoEF has okayed more ‘development’ projects on forest land than ever before. For instance, over 70% of all mining projects approved since 1981 have been in this decade. Time and again, NGOs have pointed out shocking cases of projects being approved based on flimsy, faulty, even fraudulent environment impact assessments (EIAs). This utter lack of application of mind by the MoEF has been pointed out by the Centrally Empowered Committee, an oversight body set up under Supreme Court orders. And though the MoEF imposes several conditions on how to handle environmental damage when approving a project, its machinery for ensuring compliance is so weak that most projects continue operating in violation of the conditions.  

Finally, the MoEF’s total disinterest in a public redressal process has been displayed by its treatment of the National Environment Appellate Authority -- since it was set up in 1997 it has not had a chairperson or a full bench. This, along with the fact that it has dismissed all but one appeal made to it in 11 years, compelled the Delhi High Court to recently pull up the MoEF and observe that the Authority was not fulfilling its mandate.  

Ramesh has made a number of statements highlighting his intention to strengthen the environmental clearance process. It is hoped some clear directions will be set in the next few months.  

He needs to unravel the opaqueness that the MoEF has shrouded itself in, allowing it to act like the handmaiden of a rapacious industrial sector. He has already promised to open up to civil society inputs. To do this meaningfully, he needs to do at least the following:  

  • Review membership of all expert committees and fill them with people known for their credible, independent experience and positions on a variety of environmental issues.
  • Institute a periodic public dialogue forum (not restricted to Delhi), at which environmental issues can be openly discussed; importantly, this needs to be accessible to local communities which are usually the worst hit by ecological degradation.
  • Proactively make public decisions and processes leading up to decisions (on which there has admittedly been some progress in the use of the MoEF website, for example, to put up project clearance information).
  • Initiate an annual India Environment Survey report that mandatorily includes civil society inputs and analysis, to be presented to Parliament.
  • Move to include robust sustainability indicators (for example, forest cover and quality, drinking water availability, per capita public transport, number of threatened species, and so on) into economic planning and assessment procedures.
  • Initiate a completely revamped EIA and clearance process that is meaningfully and transparently able to determine whether a development project should be allowed, and which puts potentially affected people at the centre of decision-making.
  • Bring in sector- and landscape-level EIA processes that go beyond assessing individual projects, providing an idea of the overall ecological implications of, say, the energy or agrochemicals sector, or, say, the entire series of dams in a river basin.
  • Energise redressal mechanisms such as the Environment Appellate Authority, providing it independence and personnel who can do full justice to public grievances.

One of the most important steps Ramesh could take is to convince his government to establish a National Environment Commission, a statutory authority with the independence of the Chief Election Commissioner or the Comptroller and Auditor General. Such a commission would be charged with assessing the compliance of environmental regulations by government agencies (central and state), and acting as a mediator between the public and the government. The Canadian CAG’s office has such a function, with good results.  

To reiterate, most of these actions are reformatory, aimed at improving the system. They do not fundamentally challenge the model of economic growth, which is ultimately needed. But they are the least that any environment minister with a claim to seriousness must attempt.  

Infochange News & Features, July 2009