BeyondHeadlines News Desk
New Delhi: In a strong show of unity, representatives from social and environmental movements today slammed the newly anointed environment minister, Veerappa Moily and the Prime Minister’s Office for ignoring environmental and social concerns and impacts on local communities, while granting speedy clearance to mining and infrastructure projects.
In an open letter to Mr. Moily and the Prime Minister, over 200 organisations have said that such hasty clearances go against the primary mandate of the ministry, which is to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all Indians.
The letter signed by a wide variety of human rights, environmental, community and wildlife groups and activists was released at a press conference in Delhi addressed by Samit Aich, executive director, Greenpeace India, Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriksh, Vimal Bhai of NAPM, Shailesh Gandhi, former information commissioner with Central Information Commission, and RTI activist Shekhar Singh. (3)
It states: “The recent measures taken by the minister to grant speedy approvals and relax regulatory procedures has sent a clear signal that environmental protection and people’s livelihoods are to be ignored in order to project an industry-friendly image of the government.”
The minister’s actions over the last month have undermined the very mandate of the environment ministry, whose performance must be judged on how it protects the environment, and not on the number and speed of clearances it gives for India Inc’s big ticket projects. Of course, Mr. Moily’s predecessors have not necessarily been more responsible towards this mandate, as evidenced by the fact that virtually all projects coming to them have been cleared despite inadequate or fraudulent impact assessments. Over 2.43 lakh hectares of forests have been cleared during the UPA regime from 2004 till the end of 2013.
But the new Minister clearly wants to surpass his predecessors; in any case, to have the sitting petroleum minister also preside over the Environment Ministry is another example of bad governance and conflict of interest.
Moily’s high profile approvals include coal mining projects in Madhya Pradesh, a contained terminal in Tamil Nadu, and the POSCO steel project in Odisha. POSCO has been resisted for many years by local communities (including rejection by panchayats), and has repeatedly been shown as being in violation of the Forest Rights Act and other legislation. The fact that it was cleared very close to the visit of the Korean President shows how ‘scientific’ MoEF’s decision-making is!
Even as the spokespeople of the UPA tout the Forest Rights Act and “inclusive development” as their main achievements over the last 10 years, one section of the government is going all out to undermine a number of legislations and policies, including the Forest Rights Act, the Forest Conservation Act, and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA). This has been done for example, by relaxing provisions requiringgram sabha consent for linear projects (roads, railway and transmission lines), and refusing to take action where there are clear instances of FRA violations, as in the case of Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh. The setting up of a Cabinet Committee on Investments, with powers to over-ride line ministries, is another example of how the blind pursuit of growth gives short shrift to environment and people’s rights.
This government’s pretence at being pro-poor and pro-rights has come to an end. The political gains that helped the UPA in 2009 through its championing of the FRA, NREGA, Right to Information Act etc will be absent in 2014 due to the manner in which a powerful section of the government has actively undermined these key legislations to benefit a section of industry. This is of course not to say that other mainstream parties will be any better; the BJP’s record in Gujarat, for instance, is an ecological disaster.
Members of civil society demanded that ahead of the 2014 general elections the government should publicly affirm that the primary mandate of the environment ministry is not to grant clearances and subvert existing legislation, but to protect the environment for public interest, making it an essential player in the UPA government’s stated mandate of inclusive and sustainable development. Such a commitment should be included in the manifestos of all political parties in the run-up to the elections.
Veerappa Moily, union Minister for Petroleum & Natural Gas, took over additional charge of the Environment Ministry on December 24, 2013. He has since publicly claimed that he has cleared more than 70 infrastructure projects worth 1.5lakh crore ($23 billion) in a matter of three weeks, and that he will clear all pending projects by February 15.
- The high profile clearances include the POSCO steel plant in Odisha, the Vizhinjam International Container Transshipment Terminal at Thiruvananthapuram and Coal India projects in Madhya Pradesh.
- At Moily’s insistence, the Ministry has also allowed coal mines producing less than 8 million tonnes annually to expand their capacity by up to 50 per cent without the requirement of mandatory public hearings to consult project-affected communities.
- The minister also has also exempted linear projects (roads, railway lines etc) from needing to secure the consent of all gram sabhas of villages that they pass through.
- The minister has also proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Rules to circumvent the provisions These amendments will make it even easier to hand over forest land without complying with the Forest Rights Act which is in direct contradiction to an earlier circular of the MoEF’s from June 2009.
- There are also fears that with the current spate of clearances the ministry will permit the field trials of Genetically Modified (GM) crops, which has been held back so far on the basis of scientific evidences and fears about impacts to human health and agriculture.
Further, A recent circular by the Ministry of Coal of January 15, 2014, to 61 coal block allottees states that cases where Stage II forest clearance has not been obtained will be reviewed by the Coal Ministry. This list includes controversial coal blocks such as Mahan (Madhya Pradesh) and Gare Palma IV/6 (Chhattisgarh) with high social and ecological impacts. As a result, there is a very real fear that the corporations concerned will pressure the UPA for speedy approvals, even though the mandatory processes for Stage II forest clearance have not been fulfilled in letter and spirit.