Perhaps, no other ministry has hurt India’s economic revival as much as the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF).
Ostensibly espousing a noble cause, apparently promoting inclusive growth, it has actually turned the law on its head. The MoEF has trampled on development plans and industrial development, including mining.
And nowhere is this more evident than in the MoEF’s tacit support to a resolution by 12 gram panchayats (village councils) to exclude all mining activity within a 150 km radius from the hilltop of Niyam Raja, the presiding deity of the tribals in that region.
The panchayats claimed that “the entire Niyamgiri hill range is sacred for us and the source of our livelihood”.
Intriguingly, the MoEF, which pushed the tribals’ cause in the first place, has chosen to remain silent. It possibly does not even comprehend what a 150-km radius means, and the implications such a move could have on the entire nation. If that is true, it should be disbanded on ground of incompetence.
A 150-km radius translates into 70,000 square km. Compare this with the geographical spread of some of the most sacred places in the world.
Vatican city, for instance, accounts for barely 0.4 sq km. The holiest of shrines for Muslims, Masjid al-Haram, which contains the venerated Kaaba, is spread over just 0.4 sq km. Tirupati city, not just the temple, accounts for 24 sq km.
This is despite the host countries having a lower population density per sq km than India. Is the MoEF stark raving mad?
Consider the implications. A tribe, settled along the banks of the Ganges or the Yamuna, can now claim that “the entire river is sacred for us and the source of our livelihood”. So, do we ban cities along the banks, or scrap the Ganga and Yamuna expressways? What if another tribe that dwells near the Himalayas echoes similar views and claims that the “entire mountain range is sacred for us and the source of our livelihood”? No sane government would buy such an argument.
So, are the members of the MoEF insane? Or, is there a hidden agenda?
True, the panchayats were held on the direction of the Supreme Court (SC) through its order dated April 18, 2013. But the SC had also directed the MoEF to take a final view on the issue of forest clearance of the project taking into consideration the proceedings of the village councils. Instead, the MoEF’s silence suggests that it wants to ratify this preposterous demand.
Sadly, even the SC was possibly swayed by the MoEF, when the latter demanded that the tribals’ views should be taken into account. The ministry had relied on another SC order judgment (Union of India v. Rakesh Kumar, (2010) 4 SCC 50).
But that judgment related only to minor minerals [That judgment states: tribals’ views “be made mandatory prior to grant of prospective licence or mining lease for minor minerals in the Scheduled Areas”]. The present case relates to bauxite for making aluminium, a major mineral.
The MoEF was probably making a vexatious use of the legal process by playing this last-minute gambit in October 2010 to thwart the mining company (Vedanta/Sterlite) from proceeding with its mining plans. It was after the SC had given its detailed judgment on the matter on November 23, 2007, after hearing the matter for four years.
This order was further reiterated by the SC through two separate orders, both on August 8, 2008.
The MoEF rejected Sterlite/ Vedanta’s mining proposal on August 24, 2010. The ministry did this after Vedanta/Sterlite had accepted, in 2008, all the conditions for the rehabilitation package laid down by the SC for the tribals and the project affected population.
It was done after the company had already invested around Rs 5,000 crore in its refining unit, and was now keen on integrating it with mining.
As a result, the impoverished people of Kalahandi continue to remain abjectly poor; employment generation has been thwarted; unlocking of national wealth delayed; and economic development tripped. And all this was done by a government that claims to be secular and progressive.