Environmental nod: Tightrope walk for Natarajan

Last Updated: Tue, Sep 11, 2012 04:07 hrs

Environment minister caught between India Inc pushing for green nods and environmentalists accusing her of not doing enough to save India’s forests

It probably wasn’t only in jest that a few months ago Jayanthi Natarajan likened herself to a mridangam, a percussion instrument that can be played from both sides. The minister for environment and forests revealed she felt caught between India Inc, pushing aggressively for environmental and forest clearances that will give it the land and resources to expand, and environmentalists who are accusing her of not doing enough to save India’s shrinking forests.

It is likely her flamboyant predecessor, Jairam Ramesh, must have felt similar pressures, although the detailed media coverage of his steadfast refusal to clear a clutch of large projects, including Vedanta’s Niyamgiri facility and Hindustan Construction Company’s Lavasa township, put the ministry of environment & forests (MoEF) under unprecedented scrutiny.

That is why many saw Natarajan’s entry into MoEF as the United Progressive Alliance-2 (UPA-2) government’s attempt to reverse the supposed anti-industry stance that Ramesh espoused.

But after a year in office — Natarajan took charge of the MoEF in July 2011 — it was the reconstitution of the Forest Advisory Com-mittee (FAC), an influential seven member statutory body advise the MoEF on the diversion of forest land for non-forest use, that has raised hackles and prompted the question: How successful has Natarajan been in her year-long tightrope walk between industrial growth and environmental conservation?

In spite of repeated attempts, Natarajan remained unavailable for comment and a detailed questionnaire emailed to her was unanswered.

On the FAC of it
The FAC controversy started in early August after two new independent members, K P Nyati and N P Todaria, were inducted into the board after existing members retired. Nyati was formerly with the lobby group Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Federation of Indian Mineral Industries; Todaria, a professor of forestry at the Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University, is a known supporter of hydro-power projects in the mountainous regions of Uttarakhand.

Their disposition, a number of environmentalists say, is markedly pro-industry, whereas the FAC’s mandate is to ensure the protection of forest land. “The Supreme Court has defined that the three independent (non-governmental) FAC members should have expertise on biodiversity protection, forestry and conservation. How can someone who has worked with CII become part of the FAC?” asks Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.

To a former FAC member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, it is the quality of the new inductees that is also problematic. “It is a matter of grave concern because we need to ask whether these are the best guys for the job. One is from CII; so, there is a clear conflict of interest and the other is a botanist. But what are his credentials? Where have his academic work been published?” he asks.

Although Nyati had to quit the panel last month in the face of strong protests, this attempted dilution of the FAC, the former member feels, represents the beginning of a gradual change in the MoEF, triggered by industry’s perception that critical clearances are stalling growth, especially in the thermal and hydro-power sector. Moreover, an embattled UPA-2, which in its last two years in government is likely to attempt at delivering as many projects as possible. “They (the government) aren’t thinking about the long term right now,” he adds.

Maybe, that is why Nata-rajan, in spite of the recommendation of the non-official members of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), which advises the government on the conservation of wildlife and protected areas, approved the 1,750 MwDemwe Lower Hydro Electric Project in Arunachal Pradesh earlier this year.

“All the non-official members on the standing committee were against it, but she overruled the recommendation,” says a member of NBWL’s standing committee, requesting anonymity, adding “there has been no strong rejection from the MoEF in recent months and there is tremendous pressure on us to give the green signal.”

Demwe was not the only project. Last November, Natarajan allowed the GMR Group’s Alaknanda hydroelectric project in Uttarakhand the go-ahead, though the FAC had recommended against it.

Still, the number of times she has overturned the FAC is less than Ramesh himself. Ramesh gave the nod to as many as four projects (including Posco in Odisha and SAIL’s Chiria mines), overlooking the recommendation of the FAC in 2011. The previous year, the ministry had ignored the committee’s recommendations on the Renuka Dam project in Himachal Pradesh.

But, compared to her outgoing predecessor, Natarajan has a more closed style of functioning. So, if a recommendation is ignored, as in the case of the Lower Demwe project, then no explanations or reasons are given. “If Jairam (Ramesh) overruled a recommendation, he would give a speaking order or an explanatory note,” says Thakkar, “Not any more.”

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