Forest ministry's 'new initiatives'

As 2018 begins, it is a good idea to evaluate the state of India's environment. The Ministry of Environment and Forest used to publish an annual 'State of the Environment' report (SoE). The last SoE was published in 2009, when Jairam Ramesh was the environment minister. Some of the state governments also published their own SoE reports. Instead, now, one gets periodic documents that highlight the "achievements" of the ministry.

Following this pattern, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, as it is now known, has come out with a new document, titled 'New Initiatives of 2014 to 2017'. This period coincides with coming of the Narendra Modi government. The document makes for interesting reading. While it lists out various initiatives of the ministry, this article focuses on the forest, wildlife, pollution and environmental clearances section of the document.

In the last three years, as per this document, India lost 36,500 hectares of forest land for various purposes. This amounts to a loss of forest equivalent to 63 football grounds each day. Yet, the very same document states that India is one of the few countries where forest cover continues to increase. It is difficult to reconcile these two assertions, given the fact that compensatory afforestation has never been able to recreate natural forests and trees by themselves do not constitute a forest.

In fact, the document highlights, as one of its achievements, the clearance granted for diversion of forest land for the building of Amravati, the new capital of Andhra Pradesh. The project was approved despite the fact that guidelines prohibit diversion of forest land for housing projects. It defies logic as to how an approval for deforestation can be termed a positive initiative on afforestation.

The section on 'Wildlife' is vague, to say the least. The document states that the "National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), a statutory board set up under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, has 674 projects, and recommended 241 projects during the last three years".

Firstly, the NBWL is not a recommendatory body but a decision-making body. Second, it is not clear what the 674 projects are - do they relate to wildlife conservation? Perhaps one can guess what they are from the next sentence, which states that it has "recommended 241 projects".

Those refer to ecologically destructive projects approved within National Parks, Sanctuaries and Tiger Reserves and include the diversion of more than 100 sq km of the Core Area of the Panna National Park and Tiger Reserve for the Ken-Betwa River Linking project. There is no mention of the fact that since the present government came to power, the NBWL, which is headed by the prime minister, has not met even once.

It is stated that the coffers of the National Clean Environment Fund are richer in view of the increase in the cess from Rs 50 per ton of coal to Rs 400 in 2016. There is, however, no mention of where the money has been utilised.

It has been reported, and not denied by the government, that the Rs 56,000 crore realised under this fund has been utilised for meeting the revenue shortfall on account of introduction of GST, and only a fraction used for the purpose it was collected for.

Regression as initiative

In the section on 'Pollution Control Initiatives', the document mentions that one of the initiatives was to do away with the requirement of seeking consent under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, and the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, for industries which are categorised as 'white industries'. The simple question that arises is, how can an exemption to an industry from environmental laws be regarded as a 'pollution control initiative'?

Exempting the building and construction sector (up to 1.5 lakh sqm) from the purview of environmental laws has been one of the key decisions of the government in 2016. In a clever use of words, instead of the word 'exemption', the document uses the term 'integration'. The NGT struck down this decision recently on the ground that it was essentially a 'ploy' to help the real estate sector by exempting the bulk of the building and construction projects from the purview of environmental law. The NGT held that the entire approach of the government is regressive and is against the principle that environmental law should not be modified to the detriment of environmental protection.

The least the government can do is not to call this a document a 'New Initiative' for a cleaner and greener India. It is a report card of the concerted efforts being made to ensure that environmental issues are subordinated to larger business interests. If there is anything new in the document, it is the sketches of African elephants and giraffes representing the biodiversity of India. This is not just a mistake; it symbolic of the callous approach to environmental protection and conservation by those in power.

(The writer is a New-Delhi based environmental lawyer)

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