A ministry that needs to die

It's not just because I am bored with mango man and his mysterious riches that you will not be reading about the son-in-law of our supreme leader in this column today. It is because the 'banana republic' faces problems that I believe are more serious. On account of the headlines grabbed by mango man's shady business practices last week, too little attention was paid to the row that erupted between the ministers of environment and finance. It is a turf war and the environment minister has made it clear that she intends to hang on to the powers her ministry has to block vital projects. Meanwhile, the finance minister is trying to set up an investment promotion board to override the obstacles created in the name of saving the environment.

This column has argued before that the economic downturn of the past two years began because the former minister of environment chose to revive the licence raj by using his ministry's immense powers to stop projects from going ahead. When the Prime Minister, unfortunately a man of immeasurable patience, realised that Shri Jairam Ramesh had gone too far, he kicked him upstairs and brought in someone whom he thought would understand that development does not necessarily have to be on a collision course with the environment.

Every major western country is proof of this. Clean rivers flow through modern cities, sewage and garbage is disposed of hygienically and it is possible in these countries to drive through pristine countryside undamaged by modernity and development. Mistakes made earlier have been rectified and India, where development and prosperity have come much later, should have learned from these mistakes.

We did not. So we have the filthiest cities and villages in the world. All our rivers have been turned into sewers and our forests and mountains have been devastated by bad policies and grinding poverty. But, we have a Minister of Environment who has the powers to block major development projects in the name of saving the environment. How are we to understand this conundrum? Easily. The environment ministry has a history of being used as a tool of extortion in exchange for clearances and in more recent times as an obstacle in the path of progress. This has happened because the very serious business of protecting the environment has been left in the hands of whimsical and ambitious politicians.

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