Calcutta Notebook


Prime Minister Modi planted a kadamb sapling at his official residence at Race Course, New Delhi on the World Environment Day. But the subject of environment is deeper. Modi's policies are wholly against the environment. While addressing the Environment Ministers of the States two months ago Modi said that the Government was in the process of recovering four times the present rates for the forests that were felled. At present developers have to pay Rs 10 lacs per hectare for the dense forests felled by them for mining or other purposes. This is reckoned to be the value of services such as timber and grazing that are provided by the forests. The Supreme Court had directed the Indian Institute of Forest Management to review and revise these rates. The IIFM recommended an increase from present Rs 10 lacs to Rs 56 lacs per hectare, that is, an increase of 5.6 times. The Prime Minister actually wants to reduce the increase from 5.6 times to four times but is passing this reduction as an increase!

The Prime Minister told of his commitment to clean the Ganga. The main character of a river is to flow. Hydro-power projects destroy this character of the river by building a barrage and converting a flowing river into a stagnant pool and tunnels bypassing long stretches of rivers. A case is going on in the Supreme Court regarding these hydropower projects. The Ministry of Environment had submitted in December last year that all hydropower projects would be required to ensure that the main stream of the river flowed without any obstruction. That would have conserved the basic character of the Ganga. A Committee was constituted by the Ministry of Environment under orders of the Supreme Court to recommend the action to be taken regarding six hydropower projects that had a negative impact on bio-diversity. Chair of the Committee was Professor Vinod Tare of Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. The Committee recommended that all six projects be scrapped. The Report was not to the liking of Modi though. The Government then decided to form another committee. Chair of this new Committee is Dr B P Das who is a known supporter of hydropower projects. He has had the main role in destroying the rivers of the country as Chairperson of the Expert Appriasal Committee of the Ministry of Environment that gives Environmental Clearance to hydropower projects.

One of the "pet" projects of the NDA government is to make a series cf barrages on the Ganga between Allahabad and Buxar to enable large ships to ply. That too would convert free-flowing Ganga into a series of stagnant pools. Another pet project of the Prime Minister is Inter Linking of Rivers, under which Ganga water will be dammed and diverted, further destroying the river. This means that the Prime Minister is not happy with the Ganga flowing even when his Ministries are trying to secure this. Cleaning the Ganga without ensuring its uninterrupted flow is not going to lead to rejuvenation of the river. What good is pollution control if there is no flow?

The Prime Minister had established a High Level Committee under Chair of Former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramanian to revive environmental laws to take the country in this direction. The only member of the Committee who had some connection with environment was Vishwanath Anand. He holds the distinction of dismissing every appeal seeking protection of environment that came before him when he was Vice Chair of the National Environment Appellate Authority.

At present coal mining is prohibited in all protected areas such as wildlife parks and eco-sensitive zones. The High Level Committee has recommended that coal mining may be permitted in parts of protected areas that have less than 70 percent forest density. These are called "Very Dense Forests." These constitute only 2.5 percent of India's forests. This means that large tracts of protected areas will be opened for mining.

The Prime Minister correctly says that environment and growth can go together. But who will decide whether it is indeed so? At present the affected public can approach the National Green Tribunal and seek changes in Government policy that does protect environment while pursuing growth. The High Level Committee has recommended that such complaints may be heard by an Appellate Board in future. The Board will be chaired by a retired judge of the High Court and two members will be former secretaries to the government. There will be no independent representation or of people knowledgeable about culture or environment. Secretaries are too well known to sing the tune of the Ministers. The underlying idea is to fill up the Appellate Board with persons who have a history of being pliable and purchasable.

The National Green Tribunal has been playing an important role in recent years. The High Level Committee has suggested that wings of the Tribunal be cropped. The Tribunal, it is suggested, will undertake only a "Judicial Review" of the decisions of the Appellate Board. Judicial Review means that the process of arriving at a decision shall be scrutinized but no challenge can be made on merits of a decision. For example, the Appellate Board may decide to allow mining in protected areas. As per the recommendations, no challenge can be made to such a decision as long as the High Level Committee followed the correct process such as hearing the litigants. An anti-environment decision given after following of the procedures will be beyond challenge.

Environment and the common people and their livelihoods are inextricably related. The poor are hit most from the degeneration of environment. For example, the poor drink contaminated ground water while the rich install RO systems. The impact of "developmental" projects on the poor is therefore to be treated with concern, sense of justice and sensitivity. Present law requires that large developmental projects will conduct a Public Hearing and views expressed therein will be considered by the Ministry of Environment while granting Environment Clearance. The High Level Committee, however, has recommended that only local people should be allowed to participate in such public hearings. This means that people of Varanasi will not be permitted to express their views if a barrage is being made on the Ganga at Allahabad. The High Level Committee seeks to localize the environment instead of expanding it globally.

It can be argued that the recommendations of the High Level Committee are not those of the Prime Minister. The fact remains that the Prime Minister nominated such people in the High Level Committee, and allowed them to function in non participatory, non transparent way. Planting Kadamb saplings will not undo the grave damage that Modi is inflicting upon the people of the country and environment.

Vol. 48, No. 1, July 12 - 18, 2015