We get it: India reposed faith in a leader who promised achhe din–”good times,” good governance, transparency, development, jobs, jobs, jobs.
Now nobody can argue that prime minister Narendra Modi does not mean business. So his government has gone about eliminating the policy paralyses that many claimed ailed the previous regime. This meant dismantling roadblocks that hamper economic growth. But what also happens to be under fire: laws and rules that safeguard India’s environment, forests, wildlife, and tribal rights.
Consider what all the new government has achieved (or undermined, depending on which side of the growth-versus-green debate one stands) in just about three months:
- Environmental and forest clearances have been delinked to allow work on linear projects, such as highways, on non-forest land without waiting for approvals for the stretches that require forest land. Defence projects get priority along China borders up to 100km from the Line of Actual Control in the sensitive eco zones of the higher Himalayas. The government has decided to soften some rules in the Forest Rights Act and Forest Conservation Act to step up economic activities in Naxal-affected states which account for some of the country’s best forests and the majority of our tribal population.
- The height of the Narmada dam will be raised. Irrigation projects requiring 2,000-10,000 hectares are now exempt from the scrutiny of the Centre and can be cleared by state governments. Those requiring less than 2,000 hectares will require no green clearance at all. Separation of power generation components from irrigation projects has allowed promoters to project smaller requirement of land, making clearance easier.
- Changes in the pollution classification now allow mid-sized polluting industries to operate within five km of national parks and sanctuaries (instead of the 10-km restrictive limit ordered by the Supreme Court).
- Ban lifted on new industries in critically polluted industrial areas, such as Gujarat’s Vapi. Pollution index-based moratoriums were lifted and a review of the index has been ordered. Norms for coal tar processing, sand mining, paper pulp industries, etc. were eased.
- National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) reconstituted by slashing the number of independent members from 15 to just three. This truncated NBWL cleared most of the 140 projects before it on August 12. On August 25, the Supreme Court questioned the Centre’s move, ruling that “any decision taken by it (NBWL) shall not be given effect to till further orders”.
- The process of reviewing the National Green Tribunal Act to reduce the judicial tribunal to an administrative one has been initiated. Headed by a retired Supreme Court judge or a high court chief justice, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) hears all first challenges to environmental and forest clearances. “Laws keep changing,” Modi’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar has famously justified.
- The new government has also diluted the Forest Rights Act that requires the consent of the local tribal population for diverting forestland. Instead of gram sabhas (village councils) certifying that their rights had been settled and that they had consented to projects, the district administrations have now been asked to do the same. This exercise must be completed in 60 days, irrespective of the number of project-affected villages or the complication of the process. Moreover, prospecting for minerals in forests are now exempt from having to acquire the consent of local gram sabhas or settling tribal rights.
- No public hearing for coal mines below 16 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) that want to increase output by up to 50% and those above 16 mtpa wanting to expand by up to five mtpa. Instead of individual clearances, now mines can seek approvals in clusters.
- To turn the clock back, the new government is considering as many as 19 amendments to the new Land Acquisition Act. These include dilution of the local consent requirement for public-private-partnership projects, removal of the social impact assessment requirement, delinking compensation for land from market value, relaxing the time limit for completing acquisition, not returning unutilised lands to the original owners, giving states overriding discretionary powers, etc.
- The Ken-Betwa river-linking project that will drown more than 40 sq km of the Panna tiger reserve has been revived.
- The new government also approved field trials of 21 genetically modified (GM) crops, including rice, wheat and maize (before putting it on hold under pressure from the RSS).
To be fair, the process of undermining green concerns to facilitate unbridled growth was initiated by the previous regime. For whatever little ground he stood, the rhetorical Jairam Ramesh was kicked out of the environment ministry and even his more pliant successor Jayanthi Natarajan had to make way soon for Veerappa Moily. The oil minister cleared more than 100 big-ticket projects during his short stint at the environment ministry. With Modi watching over his shoulders, Javadekar has already eclipsed Moily’s grand feat, in less than three months.
The prime minister, of course, has the mandate. He won on the promise of nationwide development along the lines of the Gujarat model. As the Yamuna in Delhi or the Ganga in Varanasi gets artificial facelifts like the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad, one could possibly blame ignorance for selling concrete riverfronts as the cure for choking rivers. But for good times’ sake, will India be able to rationalize embracing Vapi—among the world’s most polluted places—as the model of growth?