We all want the Indian economy to roar, but that roar will die out if its foundations are weak. Growth needs to be inclusive, and ecologically sustainable. These concerns should not be mere words but reflect in official policy and action therein

The times are not good for our wildlife. There are the obvious threats — the one that stirs emotions and inspires outrage. The humongous tragedy of elephants and other animals, slaughtered by the day by trains speeding through forests, is one such. There has been a rise in tiger poaching (we lost three in a row to poisoning in Orang, Assam). Other ‘hotspots’ where tiger deaths have peaked include Nagarahole, Bandhavgarh and the Rajaji-Corbett landscape. Two Great Indian Bustards were shot by poachers in broad daylight in their ‘best protected’ habitat. Leopards are being battered across their range. And pangolins, a species few people are even aware of, are in the news for massacre for their scales, used in traditional Chinese medicine.

There have been other assaults, the importance of which seems to have escaped public conscience, much less  have inspired an outcry, but whose long-term impacts are far graver as they weaken the policy framework that protects our wilds, pulling away, as it were, the forest ‘carpet’, beneath the tiger’s feet.

Many may recall the National Investment Board proposed by Union Minister for Finance P Chidambaram, envisaged to ensure that big projects — with invesNigahi Mines in Singraulitments exceeding Rs1,000 crore — sail through, dismantling our regulatory systems for green clearances. There was much opposition to its ‘superpowers’, which would brush aside environmental and social concerns, and even democratic tenets, in the quest for growth. This included a feisty letter to the Prime Minister by Union Minster for Environment & Forests Jayanthi Natarajan, who questioned the board’s hasty formation and purpose. She expressed grave concerns about its constitutional breach, the consequences to governance, responsibility to the legislature, and questioned the domain knowledge of such a board, as matters related to environment and forest require nuanced decision-making which has far reaching consequences.

Ms Natarajan had pointed out that the Cabinet note on the NIB gave industrialists the right to appeal against decisions of her Ministry, but that it “does not contemplate that ordinary citizens, NGOs may be aggrieved and should also have right of appeal”. She called this concept “unacceptable”. The NIB was given a quiet burial. But what we have instead is its equally dangerous, renamed, re-packaged avatar, the Cabinet Committee on Investments, which appears to have sailed through with little opposition or concern, even from the Ministries most impacted: Environment & Forests and Tribal Affairs.

A new Standing Committee, constituted under the CCI, is empowered to identify projects with investments of over Rs1,000 crore and other significant projects, to check and limit the regulatory process involved and ensure speedy approvals. The order, dated January 2, states that the CCI will have the power not only to prescribe time limits for approvals and monitor the progress of identified projects through the clearance process, but  also review the process followed by departments/Ministries; and take decisions regarding clearance of a specific project, if deemed necessary.

If one reads this correctly, the CCI will review the current system of green regulatory process and have the powers to overrule the Environment Ministry if it refuses any project on the basis of environment, forest or wildlife concerns. It even allows for the CCI to take decisions regarding any clearance, if it is ‘unduly delayed’. This, when over 95 per cent of the proposed projects romp through the green ministry.

There is also an ongoing effort to reduce the projects that need to come to the Centre for clearance. A committee has been set up under Planning Commission member K Kasturirangan to review the kind of projects that can be dealt with at the State levels, and hence dispense with the need for approval by the Union Ministry. It is reported that the PMO and several states have been pushing for such a ‘reform’ in a bid to make the clearance process simpler for the industry and infrastructure projects. It’s easier, apparently, to get the nod at the State level. Given that most projects get the nod at (For every three projects rejected by the Environment Ministry’s statutory bodies, 97 are cleared, according to a recent article in Tehelka) at the centre too, one shudders to think of the implications for this one.

Under pressure from the National Highways Authority of India, the Environment Ministry has also taken a call, and, reportedly, filed an application in the Supreme Court to modify its order of 2011 (that was upheld and endorsed by the apex Court in the Lafarge case) which required projects involving forest land to have forest clearance before they applied for environment clearance.

The Ministry now wants to delink these two clearances. The problem with easing this clause is that project developers will present a fait accompli to the Ministry, citing huge investments made on the basis of environment clearance in those parts of the road (or any other linear project which may tear into prime wild habitats) which are on non-forest land. Essentially, we might have a highway that is built, with considerable expenditure, on both sides of a pristine forest or even a sanctuary, before the project is presented for forest clearance at the Ministry’s door. The developer then argues that immense investment has already been made and that a forest clearance cannot be inhibiting a project at such an advanced stage. There are no prizes for guessing which way the wind will blow.

What is the message that India is sending? That social, environment and forest concerns are a nuisance, an impediment? That a country which prides itself as a pioneer in conservation leadership is now backtracking on its commitment? That it is not just overlooking vital ecological concerns of far-reaching consequences, but even the basic tenets of democracy to ease the way for big investment?

How can we overlook the huge social unrest and the pain of the displaced in our haste for our growth dream? Nor can we commit to saving our wildlife, then push for policies that weaken the regulatory framework that protects their habitat. Tigers, elephants, bustards, cranes, dugongs, dolphins, snow leopards will not survive if we decimate, degrade, destroy the forests, grasslands, wetlands, rivers, mountains and seas — that also sustain us.

We all want the Indian economy to roar, but that roar will fade if its foundations are weak. Growth, especially for a democracy like ours, needs to be inclusive, and ecologically sustainable. These concerns should not be mere words but reflect in policy and deed.

(The columnist is senior consultant, WCS India, and founder-director of ‘Bagh’. She is also a member of the National Board for Wildlife)

This column was first published in The Pioneer, on March 13, 2013

Picture: Nigahi mine, Singrauli coalfield, reputed to be India’s largest coal mine. Credit-Greenpeace, Sudhanshu Malhotra