New Delhi – In a strong show of unity, representatives from social and environmental movements slammed the newly anointed environment minister, Veerappa Moily and the Prime Minister’s Office for ignoring environmental and social concerns and impacts on local communities, while granting speedy clearance to mining and infrastructure projects.
In an open letter to Mr. Moily and the Prime Minister, over 200 organisations have said that such hasty clearances go against the primary mandate of the ministry, which is to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all Indians.
The letter signed by a wide variety of human rights, environmental, community and wildlife groups and activists was released at a press conference in Delhi addressed by Samit Aich, executive director, Greenpeace India, Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriksh, Vimal Bhai of National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), Shailesh Gandhi, former Information Commissioner with Central Information Commission, and RTI activist Shekhar Singh.
It states: “The recent measures taken by the minister to grant speedy approvals and relax regulatory procedures has sent a clear signal that environmental protection and people’s livelihoods are to be ignored in order to project an industry-friendly image of the government.”
The minister’s actions over the last month have undermined the very mandate of the environment ministry, whose performance must be judged on how it protects the environment, and not on the number and speed of clearances it gives for India Inc’s big ticket projects. Of course, Mr. Moily’s predecessors have not necessarily been more responsible towards this mandate, as evidenced by the fact that virtually all projects coming to them have been cleared despite inadequate or fraudulent impact assessments. Over 2.43 lakh hectares of forests have been cleared during the UPA regime from 2004 till the end of 2013.
But the new minister clearly wants to surpass his predecessors; in any case, to have the sitting petroleum minister also preside over the Environment Ministry is another example of bad governance and conflict of interest.
Moily’s high profile approvals include coal mining projects in Madhya Pradesh, a contained terminal in Tamil Nadu, and the POSCO steel project in Odisha. POSCO has been resisted for many years by local communities (including rejection by panchayats), and has repeatedly been shown as being in violation of the Forest Rights Act and other legislation. The fact that it was cleared very close to the visit of the Korean President shows how ‘scientific’ MoEF’s decision-making is!
Even as the spokespeople of the UPA tout the Forest Rights Act and ‘inclusive development’ as their main achievements over the last 10 years, one section of the government is going all out to undermine a number of legislations and policies, including the Forest Rights Act, the Forest Conservation Act, and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA). This has been done, for example, by relaxing provisions requiring gram sabha consent for linear projects (roads, railway and transmission lines), and refusing to take action where there are clear instances of FRA violations, as in the case of Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh. The setting up of a Cabinet Committee on Investments, with powers to over-ride line ministries, is another example of how the blind pursuit of growth gives short shrift to environment and people’s rights.
This government’s pretence at being pro-poor and pro-rights has come to an end. The political gains that helped the UPA in 2009 through its championing of the FRA, NREGA, Right to Information Act (RTI), etc., will be absent in 2014 due to the manner in which a powerful section of the government has actively undermined these key legislations to benefit a section of industry. This is of course not to say that other mainstream parties will be any better; the BJP’s record in Gujarat, for instance, is an ecological disaster.
Members of civil society demanded that ahead of the 2014 general elections, the government should publicly affirm that the primary mandate of the environment ministry is not to grant clearances and subvert existing legislation, but to protect the environment for public interest, making it an essential player in the UPA government’s stated mandate of inclusive and sustainable development. Such a commitment should be included in the manifestos of all political parties in the run-up to the elections.
In the meantime, Greenpeace has been gunning for Moily’s resignation in light of his ongoing spree of hasty environment clearances and the fear that he will give clearance to Mahan coal block soon, without properly considering the environmental issues at stake. The Mahan coal block was allocated to a joint venture between Essar Power and Hindalco Industries in 2006 and is currently under the CBI’s scanner. Essar plans to fell over 5 lakh trees in the Mahan forest for its proposed coal mine. Greenpeace demands Essar to cancel its proposed coal mine in Mahan coal block and that Veerappa Moily be sacked for his speedy clearances at the cost of the environment and the people of the country.