Ill-advised move

The concern expressed by the minister for environment and forests Jayanthi Natarajan over the proposal to set up a National Investment Board (NIB) to fast-track clearances of major infrastructural projects has again brought to light the problematic relationship between environmental safety and the imperatives of investment and development. The move is to create a high-powered standing committee under the prime minister to hear appeals from companies whose projects have been stalled on environmental grounds. The claimed purpose is to ensure that major investment plans are not delayed or scuttled because of slow decision-making or on false environmental grounds. But it is feared that it might promote the interests of big corporates at the expense of essential environmental safeguards.

Natarajan has articulated her opposition to the proposal in very strong terms in a letter written to the prime minister. It is unusually strong as there seems to be some pique over the complaint that the environment ministry has been holding up clearances for some major projects but the reasoning of the letter goes much beyond this sentiment. It points out that the NIB, as it is conceived, would be an illegal body and the decision to set it up was not on the basis of necessary consultation. There are also issues of procedure and substance. The NIB would not have the competence to decide on matters that call for technical knowledge. The letter has warned that the proposal “would have serious consequences on the way ministries are run, governance is carried out and responsibilities to the legislature by the executive are carried out.”

The minister’s views have to be taken seriously. In spite of Natarajan’s denials, it is true that bureaucratic or other kinds of delays and overzealous environmental objections and campaigns have affected many investment projects. But the remedy is not to short-circuit due procedures and take decisions without proper consideration of the human and environmental costs of projects. If the present system of decision-making is slow, the system should be fast-tracked. It is not advisable to create a body which undermines the system and its institutional mechanisms. It is wrong to consider preservation of the environment and the need for development as mutually exclusive or contradictory. There is the need for a balance between the two. Natarajan has perhaps protested too much and may be too partisan, but there is some truth in her arguments.

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