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Fast-Track Clearances:PROJECTS Vs PEOPLE'S RIGHTS. By Dr S Saraswathi, 17 Oct, 2012 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 17 October 2012

Fast-Track Clearances


By Dr S Saraswathi

Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The Government appears to be in a tearing hurry to get a National Investment Board (NIB) in place to fast-track clearances of major infrastructure projects. Considering the enormous bureaucratic delay and the role played by vested interests in the processing of development projects, this step  may seem necessary.  But, in view of the undue haste in initiating further economic reforms and in commencement of projects in the pipeline at the fag end of the term of the present Government, the step seems to collide with the requirements of environmental prescriptions.


No wonder, the Minister of State in charge of Environment Jayanthi Natrajan has expressed serious concern” about it. She finds the very concept of fast-track clearance “unacceptable” in infrastructure projects, notwithstanding that the NIB shall be headed by the Prime Minister and will include principal Ministries such as Finance and Law and Justice. It is proposed that it will hear appeals from companies whose projects have been stalled on environmental grounds and speed up clearances. At the same time, media reports reveal the presence of antagonistic views within the Government.


While conflict of interest between the corporate giants pushing many of the mega projects and the Government is understandable, the differences between pro-reform Ministries and the Environment Ministry are undesirable and indeed disturbing. Another, and in fact, the more serious factor implied in this move is the growing clash between development projects and people’s rights in relation to their environment. Expediting the process of clearance raises questions over ensuring the right to clean environment. 


These rights encompass several aspects – sheer livelihood, health, etc. of the people living in and around the area selected for the major projects. In the affluent western nations, environmental conflicts arise from the threat to public health and leisure options. But in the Third World, it is an economic conflict as well as involves grave subsistence and survival problems.


In Part IV of the Constitution on the Directive Principles of State Policy, Article 48(A) added by the 42nd Amendment, introduced in 1976, provides directions to the States to protect and improve the environment and safeguard forests and wildlife. Likewise, Article 51-A (g) imposes a fundamental duty on every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures.


Over the years, the Central Government has adopted several legislations for promotion of clean environment. Among theses are Forest (Conservation ) Act 1980, the Environment (Protection) Act 1986, and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of  Forest Rights) Act. These laws aim at protecting the rights of the people and go farther than legislations for prevention and control of pollution of water and air. Additionally, a Ministry of Environment and Forests was established in 1985 and a National Forest Policy was adopted in 1988.


Apart from broad principles and specific laws governing preservation of the environment, India has specifically accepted the concept of sustainable development. It means “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their needs”. The concept is known since the 1970s and has been used to describe an economy “in equilibrium with basic ecological support systems”.


The Rio Declaration of 1992 proclaims that “Human beings are the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”.


Towards this goal and to promote the principles of sustainable development, a statutory National Green Tribunal has been established. It provides an opportunity to any individual to approach the Tribunal Bench to ensure adherence to these principles and to the policy to make the polluter pay.


Development as a civil process should be so conceived as to include not just material progress, but also the natural environment, social relations, production, consumption, and distribution, and social well-being of all sections of the people.


Development has both qualitative and quantitative dimensions. Social goals are as important as economic growth. One cannot supplant the other. As a derivation, the Ministries concerned with growth need to work along with those concerned with environment. Therefore, the general tendency to take environmental clearances for granted as a matter of routine is no longer possible. There is some definite awakening among people and there are civil society organizations to speak for the common man.


It is also feared that only mega projects worth over Rs.1,000 crore can have recourse to the fast-track approach. It means that the proposed NIB is meant to assist big investors and not the ordinary people wanting to work small and intermediate projects that are blocked or caught in red tape.


Interestingly, the Government is going all out to encourage investments in the country. Therefore, the proposal to set up the NIB has moved unusally very fast. However, we cannot overlook the fact that mega projects affect the people and the natural environment more intensely than minor ones and need careful consideration by all the stakeholders.


This  Board is not empowered to look into the questions of rights, feasibility, and environmental aspects of  the projects. A legitimate doubt may be raised whether in the name of fast-track, big industries are going to be allowed to side-track environmental and human issues. Needless to mention that no project should be allowed to ride rough shod over the rights of the people enshrined and protected in our legislations.


Sadly, the question of resettlement and rehabilitation of those displaced by projects, adequate compensation for the affected, and provision of alternative means of employment for those who are losing their livelihood are coming up again and again. But unfortunately, these issues do not get the priority they deserve. Indeed, a board with representatives from the authorities, the corporate houses engaged in big projects, and the common people must be immediately set up to fast-track consideration and decision of all factors affecting both people and the environment on account of mega projects.


The National Investment Board as presently conceived will assist corporate houses to speed up their projects and not the people to get their rights. This gives room for a legitimate grievance that development is fast becoming more and more pro-rich and anti-poor. This impression, and any truth in it, must be removed first and foremost. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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