Red lights blur at green ministry

Environment minister diluting guidelines put in place by her predecessor Jairam Ramesh

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It has been just about two months since Jayanthi Natarajan took over as minister of environment and forests, but environmentalists are already worried how the ministry been diluting strict guidelines put in place by her predecessor Jairam Ramesh.

The latest concern came after an office memorandum dated September 9, 2011 — DNA has a copy of it — said a provisional environmental clearance can be issued to a project independent of the forest clearance. The environment advisory committee can recommend a project for environmental clearance and give the proponent 12 to 18 months time to get the forest clearance.

According to the earlier rule, environmental clearance was not possible until one had forest clearance.

Now, the memorandum — it calls itself “a partial amendment” of an earlier one dated March 31, 2011 when Ramesh headed the MoEF —  adds a rider in the end that if the forest clearance is not submitted within the stipulated time, the project’s environmental clearance will stand rejected.

This memorandum has not appeased organisations working on environmental issues. Parineeta Dandekar of the South Asia Network on Dams said, “The rider can do little to assuage fears that it would open doors to more rampant abuse of the environmental guidelines.”

She added: “The MoEF memorandum in March stated that projects will be considered for environmental clearance only after they get forest clearance.”

Admitting that the MoEF’s dilution of procedure is alarming, environmental activist Praful Bidwai said he was not surprised. “It is already well established that it is corporates and oligarchs who are pulling strings in the government,” he said and asked, “How else do you think the government cleared 8,000 plus projects that will destroy 5,00,000 acres of forests in the last four years?”

Ironically, the amended memorandum came on the same day the MoEF was sent a scathing letter by tiger expert Ullas Karanth, associate professor at the Institute of Economic Growth, Amita Baviskar and Director of Nehru Memorial Museum Mahesh Rangarajan against the forest bureaucracy and its clearance processes.

“From the bottom up, state forest departments/governments are routinely approving even obviously damaging projects. They have abdicated their role of due diligence, mandatory under the Forest Conservation Act, and honest expression, possibly under political or other pressure,” the trio had charged.

Interestingly while confirming receiving the letter Natarajan had said, “We are going to consider the suggestions and will make any course corrections that are needed.”

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