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Can the Minister Take the Bull by its Horn?

Bahar Dutt, 19 August, 2009
Winds of change are sweeping across the dusty corridors of the once quiet Ministry of Environment and Forests. For ten years this Ministry has been with the DMK – but election 2009 changed it all.  Now speculation is rife on whether the environment will be better protected in the hands of a Congress Minister? Can Minister Jairam Ramesh bring back the golden period inIndia ’s environmental history when Indira Gandhi with one phonecall could halt a dam being constructed in Silent Valley, or where the first family took pride and personal interest in saving India ’s big cats.
But the Congress of the 80’s is very different from the Congress of 2009, in which Minister Jairam Ramesh has been given the green mandate. In order to maintain a growth rate of 8-9% it is India ’s forests, mineral and water resources that are facing an unprecedented onslaught. And in recent years the MOEF has earned the dubious record of being the ‘Ministry of Environmentand Forest Clearance’.   In a short span of 2004 to 2006 India lost over 25000 sq km. of dense forest to industrial and development projects.  A ministry which is supposed to be the watchdog of a natural treasury of 67 million hectares of forest and over 15000 species of wild plants and animals has been clearing projects with virtually little or no opposition.
Shaking a Ministry after years of lethargy will be the biggest challenge for the new Minister. And shaking his own legacy even bigger.  The Minister belongs to the school of liberalization andeconomic reforms. The same reforms, which may have put India on the super economic highway but with losses, that are unaccounted for.  Coal mines in tiger reserves and elephant habitats, roads bifurcating national parks and mega dams submerging prime tropical forests worth millions of dollars.   India ’s forests and those who live close to them are perhaps paying the heaviest price for the nations progress as a superpower. Little wonder then that when Jairam Ramesh, took over the Environment Ministry, the green lobby has been skeptical about his commitment to the green cause.
But the Minister has taken his new role seriously. Since he has taken over he has called for a review of several projects, initiated a number of policy announcements, visits to institutions like the Wildlife Institute, interacting with scientists, and synergizing the work of thirty tiger reserves across the country. He is also a Minister with new ideas. Plans are now afoot to introduce the National Green Tribunal a single judicial body to decide on all matters relating to the environment. With this, the functioning of two existing bodies – the National Environment Appellate Authority and the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court could be impacted.  While the dissolution of the former is good, the latter may not be.  
The National Environment Appellate Authority ( NEAA) – the only judicial body in the country to hear grievances against environment clearance process has the dubious record of dismissing all but one petition in the last 12 years.  According to an RTI filed Delhi based environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta – no site visits have been made by any members of the NEAA except to places of religious interest- Shirdi and Varanasi . And none of these religious trips had anything to do with the cases being heard by the NEAA.  
In contrast the other quasi –judicial body, which may also become a victim of the National Green Tribunal is the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court, which looks into all matters related to diversion of forests for non-forest activities. With a motley group of forest officers and bureaucrats this is perhaps the only body that has taken its role of a watchdog of India ’s forests very seriously- sometimes much to the chagrin of state governments and mining companies.  Will the CEC too be dissolved once the National Green Tribunal is set up? It is perhaps this body that the Minister may need to save – if he is serious about his role of protecting India ’s forests
Trouble for the new Minister may arise from traditionally unknown quarters- his own government. A case in point- the Niyamgiri hills, Orissa, where   India ’s most controversial and long drawn out environment battle is being fought by hundreds of indigenous tribals. Plans are afoot to chop down the rich tropical forests of the Niyamgiri hills – for the Vedanta bauxite-mining project.  Here too- murky dealings are on. In letters accessed through an RTI- it is clear that pressure came from the highest office in the country- the PMO to the Ministry in 2008, on the status of forest clearance that was pending with the MOEF. And herein lies the scam- since the project is being developed in a Fifth Schedule Area- land acquisition can only be undertaken by the State. In this case the land will be handed over once acquired by state to a private company, which is Vedanta.  Is it ethical for the state to be putting pressure on its own Ministry on behalf of a   private agency? The same state, which should as per the constitution be upholding the rights of the people. Now in 2009 will there be pressure on Ramesh too, to make sure that the process is expedited? And when pressure comes from his own Prime Ministers Office to dispense with infrastructure projects on forestland will he be able to continue his role as a watchdog of India ’s forests?

The second likely source of conflict will be state governments particularly those where the BJP is in power - Jharkhand, Chhatissgarh and Orissa- states with huge mining resources as well as forests.  In 2005 Chief Minister of Chhatisgarh, Raman Singh wrote a letter to MOEF asking for declaration of forest in Korba as an elephant reserve to reduce human-elephant conflict. Three months later a letter is written by the Confederation of Indian Industry- requesting for area not to be declared as elephant reserve as the area has huge coal deposits which could be detrimental to industrial interests. Never mind that the same area has had 20 elephant deaths as the elephants compete for space with humans with their forests gone. A far sighted CM who wanted to protect the elephants has been silenced by commercial interest. What will the MOEF do in such cases? Support the CII or the BJP CM?
These and other such contentious issues are what Ramesh will need to bite into- as he visits national parks and sanctuaries and poses for pictures on an elephant in Corbett.

In the meanwhile India ’s green activists can take heart that in the lofty corridors of power they finally have access to a Minister who is articulate, English speaking much like the urban elite from which India ’s environment movement is drawn. Perhaps herein lies Ramesh’s strength. He is a minister who is accessible and responsive.  In the days to come can this Minister take the much needed tough decisions  which may sometime make him unpopular with his own government and put a clear moratorium on infrastructure projects coming up on elephant corridors and vital tiger habitats? Jairam Ramesh has his work cut out. And the greens have much hope from the new Minister.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and environment editor of CNN-IBN



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