India Inc is delighted with the exit of Jayanthi Natarajan as environment minister, as also with a proposal for deemed environmental clearances if formal clearances are not given within a stipulated time limit. Natarajan was often castigated for slowing environmental clearances to a crawl, freezing the development process.
Businessmen also talked of delays arising from corruption, but corruption was only one of many reasons for delays. A Coal India official said clearance for a coal mine used to take three years, but now takes 10-12 years. This is obviously ridiculous. Many businessmen are celebrating what they claim is a better balance between the needs of the environment and needs of development.
Yet, anybody who thinks the environment got special attention and protection in the last five years needs to think again. Our rivers, soil and air are more polluted than ever. Forest degradation continues, and aquifers are being depleted by unsustainable pumping. Environmentally, India is a disgrace. State governments are uninterested in or incapable of penalising polluters. By giving free farm electricity, they are mad participants in a race to wipe out all our aquifers.
The Indian state looks too weak to stop illegal pollution by industries and cities, yet is strong enough to abort legal new activity. Seen in this light, India does not face a dilemma of choosing between the environment and development. Rather, India suffers from such widespread misgovernance that both the environment and development are suffering.
In their own ways, India Inc and Jayanthi Natarajan are both guilty.
Era of the New Raj
What is outrageous is that scams about pollution and illegal mining do not result in lawbreakers going to jail. Instead, politicians and courts curb or ban fresh legal activity! One classic example is sand mining. Thanks to vague Supreme Court guidelines, many collectors play safe and do not issue fresh sand mining licences.
The mafia and political crooks also collude in curbing licences and making legal sand scarce, so illegal sand becomes more profitable. Worse, illegal sand becomes the only way to save the construction industry, India’s biggest employer, which is reeling under sand shortages.
When collector Durga Shakti tried to stop the sand mafia, she was transferred by the corrupt UP government. Worse, the Green Tribunal declared making environmental clearance mandatory even for the smallest patches of sand. Its response to illegality was not to imprison wrongdoers but to make legal production even more difficult. This is perversity parading as morality. India needs liberal mining licences plus quick jailing of illegal miners. Instead, we are getting stiffer regulations that thwart legal mining, while illegal miners go scot free and make millions.
Jayanthi Natarajan says she cleared many projects but these were held up later by state laws and land acquisition issues. That is partly true. It underlines the fact that the problem covers four areas: environmental clearances, tribal clearance, forest clearance and land issues, many under state government control.
These four areas have created a new licence-permit raj. They have a much better rationale than the old licence-permit raj. They are well intentioned. But they have been designed without any balancing of the needs of production. The land acquisition Bill, supposedly aimed at settling land disputes expeditiously, will end up delaying projects by several years, and encouraging litigation. Its saving grace is a clause permitting compulsory leasing rather than outright acquisition — that could be a good way forward.
For a Better Balance
Rahul Gandhi is believed to be behind the new proposal to have deemed environmental clearances within a fixed time limit. This can expedite projects. But it can also invite corruption: bureaucrats can be bribed to simply sit on files till the time limit expires. This could lead to legal challenges through public interest litigations that delay projects anyway.
Ultimately, there is no substitute for clean governance. More important, faster clearances for new projects will not touch the huge problem India faces of ever-worsening pollution from old projects, and destruction of its air, water and land. The responsibility in most cases lies with state governments. Through callous neglect of sewage treatment, state governments have converted our rivers into stinking sewers. States have also been notoriously reluctant to close down polluting units.
India Inc may call such state governments “development friendly”, but that misrepresents development totally. The only mass closures of polluters (like the Agra foundries, Kanpur tanneries or Tirupur dyeing units) have taken place because of court orders, and in these cases, pollution has indeed been checked. We need systems that work without court intervention. The state should proactively check pollution and violation of forest rules.
That’s what a better balance between environment and development means. It does not mean simply clearing new projects quickly, while ignoring old polluting projects. It means combining faster clearances with crackdowns on the existing army of polluters. Jayanthi Natarajan alone should not suffer: so should thousands of polluters.