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Environment Calls Shots:VIKAS KA RAAVAN WELCOME, by Proloy Bagchi, 5 Aug, 2010 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 5 August 2010

Environment Calls Shots


By Proloy Bagchi


Minister of State for Environment & Forests Jairam Ramesh asserted the other day that he was generally called “Vikas ka Raavan”. Clearly, inferring to his colleagues in the Government.  Remember, Raavan was the ten-headed mythical demon king of Lanka, now Sri Lanka, portrayed negatively in the Hindu epic Ramayana for kidnapping Sita, the revered wife of Lord Ram. But not many are aware that Raavan was a great scholar, maestro at playing the veena and was profoundly devoted to Lord Shiva.


Obviously, Ramesh used this simile in reference to Raavan’s negative aspects.  Times out of number, with his brief to ensure conservation of the country’s environment he has had to take positions against various proposals mooted by other ministries to further the process of development (vikas).


In fact, many people who are concerned about our deteriorating environment dread the word development aka vikaas. In the name of development, progress and economic growth, forests are being plundered, land rendered barren, rivers polluted and the air fouled up. Benefitting only big business houses and their political supporters who make money on the side while cutting deals with the Government on behalf of the industrialists.


Other beneficiaries are bureaucrats and engineers who, regardless of the damage that construction projects cause to the environment, are all for them as these allow them to make tons of money by short-changing the Government. Specially, projects in the public sector.


Sadly, a vast majority of people get the rawest deal in the name of development. Not only are their ancestral lands acquired for the venture forcing them to move their hearths and homes but also they get no compensation and benefit.  Worse, even where reimbursement is paid, at best it is a puny amount which is never paid on time. And promises of rehabilitation generally remain unfulfilled. Precisely what has been happening in dam projects, mining ventures, setting up of steel, aluminium and power plants.


True, “development” conotates progress and prosperity, but it also suggests ruination of the environment and misery to the countless faceless and, now not-so-mute, poor and tribals. Any wonder that all the environmentally vital areas of the country, endowed with dense forests and rich eco-systems in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar, have become conflict zones – conflicts of the poor who own or are settled on the lands/ forests with the promoters of the projects.


Leading to clashes within the Government. After all, various Ministers’ raison d’être is development and, hence, for their own perpetuation they have to push for more development. When proposals emanating from their respective Ministries are shot down by the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), its helmsman, Jairam Ramesh, gets a mouthful and is called all kinds of names, one being “Vikas ka Raavan”.


Interestingly, prior to Jairam Ramesh’s taking over, the Environment Ministry had a quieter time. The Ministers, who held charge during the United Progressive Alliance I Government and, before that, in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime, were perhaps, not very interested in conservation of the environment. From all evidences, it was for them, another job. Thus, very large tracts of forests and lands were degraded and numerous rivers polluted due to the lack of alacrity on the part of the Ministry.


Therefore, the proponents of developmental projects had little difficulty in getting their proposals rushed through the Ministry. All kinds of stratagems – fair or foul – were used, occasionally even invoking the clout of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Indeed, the PMO is reported to have issued directives that no hindrances would be placed before any developmental project, which would have to be cleared as quickly as possible. Resulting in the Environment Ministry being reviled as a “rubber stamp” during UPA I.  


The UPA II hoped to repeat the same as it is chasing a double-digit GDP growth-rate.  However, with the advent of Ramesh at the helm, the Ministry has ceased to function as a “rubber stamp.” The Minister has not only infused tremendous vigour into the Ministry and made it what it should have been all these years ---- a vital cog in the process of effective governance for balanced economic development. That takes into account all environmental considerations (breathe fresh air, drink uncontaminated water, watch animals in their native habitat), along with providing the fruits of development to the people.


Development projects for are now being critically examined by several invigorated and re-constituted bodies with a view to scrutinising their impact on the environment – forests, wildlife, rivers, air et al. Unused to this kind of resistance the development-oriented Ministries consider the Environment Ministry a roadblock and, therefore, let out shrill, often abusive, cries.


Consequently, Ramesh has landed himself in trouble on several occasions. On a few occasions thanks to his ‘avoidable’ faux pas. Recently, on a visit to China he took pot shots at the Home Ministry regarding it’s paranoia about Chinese workers in India. Next, on a visit to the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal he held a piece of rock and claimed it was not contaminated.


Nonetheless, he has brought   environmental issues on newspapers’ front pages and saved many forests from being destroyed. Two recent instances come to mind. One he rejected the Adani group’s application for mining coal in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve for setting up a 1980 MW power plant at Gondia. On the ground that coal-mining would destroy the rich forests and tiger habitat in the area.


Likewise, the Ministry rejected the proposal to amend the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification to eliminate a massive mangrove zone to accommodate the second airport for Mumbai. The promoters were asked to look for an alternative site. Reportedly, the Prime Minister has intervened in the matter. But the last word has still to be said on this.


Many environmentalists heaved a sigh of relief when Ramesh was renominated to the Rajya Sabha. All in all, India’s environment needs this Raavan to be around, faux pas and all! ---- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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