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A new balance

Environment ministry cannot be an obstacle to development, nor merely a clearing house for projects

By: |
January 21, 2017 12:50:28 am

On Thursday, Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave asked non-official experts, who are part of committees constituted by his ministry, to expedite clearances of pending projects over the next three months. While the minister clarified that his directives pertain to “genuine projects”, his 45-minute address to the experts seemed to convey that they had become stumbling blocks for developmental initiatives. “Clear projects fast. Don’t hold back development,” he told them. The minister’s directives might seem salutary given that the UPA government convoluted environmental clearance procedures till they became virtually meaningless. But by apparently seeking to attenuate the role of experts, Dave’s directives run the risk of diluting the environmental safeguards his ministry is mandated to uphold.

Environmental clearance procedures are a prerequisite for efficient and sustainable management of natural resources. They ensure that adverse impacts of economic growth are mitigated and managed, but these procedures are not, ipso facto, against development and growth. Maintaining a balance between environment and development, nevertheless, is not an easy task. The inputs of scientists and non-official experts on the environment ministry’s project appraisal committees are critical to ensure that the imperatives of economic growth and protection of natural resources are served. Independent experts help maintain the checks and balances in the country’s environmental clearance procedures. Unfortunately, Dave’s directives not only lend weight to the arguments that see environment and economic growth in confrontational terms, they also create the impression that the government would much rather have rubber stamps — and not independent experts — in its project appraisal committees.

Dave’s emphasis on speedy clearance of projects seems to be a continuation of a disquieting trend that gained ground under his predecessor, Prakash Javadekar: The environment ministry is keen to be judged by the number of projects it clears. “Don’t compromise on the ease of doing business, the key goal of the government,” Dave told the independent experts on Thursday. A fast-developing country does require the environment ministry to work in tandem with agencies that further economic growth, but it would be alarming if the ministry gives up its primary function and becomes a clearing house. It’s nobody’s case that the environmental clearance procedures in the country are foolproof. Data on projects, for example, is either scanty or dubious. The environment ministry does require a change in direction. But it requires more careful thought and judgement than has been evident so far.

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First published on: 21-01-2017 at 12:50:28 am
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