A new start

The environment and infrastructure ministries have stopped working at cross purposes

In a welcome new engagement, breaking the long-running hostility and suspicion between the environment and crucial infrastructure ministries, Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan has cleared several important projects, including the Ahmedabad-Udaipur-Kishangarh highway. Many of these projects were held up by the unreasonableness of regulation that made it mandatory, for instance, for a highway to be cleared by every gram sabha on the way. The ministry of environment and forests is also giving the final touches to a plan that will insist on full forest clearance for the entire mining lease area, instead of granting clearance to a smaller section of the lease area where actual mining is proposed. This streamlines forest clearance procedures, allowing mining agencies to break up land for additional mining in the same lease area without having to approach the MoEF again. The bit-by-bit clearance was not just obstructive, it also had the potential of becoming an ATM. Could these moves, taken together, be the beginning of the end for the false "environment versus development" choice? This fake and self-serving oversimplification has served neither environment nor development. The only purpose it has fulfilled is that of headline hunting in recent years. Natarajan, unfortunately, inherited a system that prized its power to obstruct.

Whether in roads, power, steel or defence, projects were viewed with a reflexive suspicion and as an opportunity to create a new controversy. Activists controlled the ministry and its array of committees and opposed every major industrial and infrastructure project, and often won, thumbing their nose at the rest of the government, particularly the prime minister. Because of the way the process was structured, it was all too easy for these interests to veto or delay initiatives. The maze of green tribunals, courts and the RTI-petition apparatus tripped up the clearances that were granted, and added greater uncertainty. Instead of trying to minimise environmental damage or even looking for creative ideas to enhance the quality of environment while sharing the larger national development goals, the environment ministry had been operating on the dangerous presumption that its role was muscle-flexing and to shoot down other ministries.

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