By Mayukh Bhadra Chowdhury
Edited by Nandita Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
The debate on whether or not the environment should be made the sacrificial lamb for the greater goals of economic growth in a developing country like India has been a long drawn battle. While there are those who believe that India cannot afford to shun growth-inducing projects for the sake of protecting the environment as this is a luxury available only to developed countries that aren’t battling acute economic malaise’s like inflation and unemployment, there are others who argue that the whole inclusive growth module which our State has decided to follow requires a certain degree of concern for the environment. It is true that countries like the United Kingdom witnessed periods during the Industrial Revolution in which, environmental quality degraded to a great extent. It is only after significant growth and development (ensuring self-sufficiency) that these countries started taking a more pro-environment stand. However, one must not fail to point out that even in the short run, the harms of a growth based policy, which excludes the environment, are aplenty and sometimes irreversible. The perfect hypothesis of this would be China, with its bullish approach to growth that has culminated in the infamous ‘ghost cities of China’ and other regions, which are so engulfed with smog that it is cumbersome for citizens to even breathe without the use of masks. So how exactly do we move forward in a way that consolidates economic growth and also protects the environment? Herein comes the role of the Centre, which should be neither pro-growth nor pro-environment in its stance, but rather judge each case on a rational basis.
As is known to us, the UPA has a whole vortex of criticisms and shortcomings attributed to it during its most recent term in power. One of the major problems faced by the country during this period was a sharp fall in investor confidence, leading to sluggish growth, which setback a large portion of our economic agenda. This was largely due to the twin troubles of rampant corruption and the pro-environment stance which shunned licenses to several projects during this tenure. The Ministry of Environment and Forests, while headed by Jairam Ramesh, built up quite the reputation for stalling and suspending licenses for major projects, citing environmental protection as something that cannot be compromised. The problem with this sort of attitude taken by the Central ministry is that it is more akin to activism than to rational policy making. While rational policy making takes into account the benefits, as well as costs of a particular growth inducing project, a blanket pro-environment stance tends to reject projects solely based on the harm it does to the environment, ignoring all other factors such as the degree of capital flow and employment that it provides.
As was expected, a change of Government has led to a somewhat different strategy. It is with this background that the present Union Environment and Forest’s Minister, Prakash Javadekar, announced the proposal made by the Union to decentralise the process of granting permission for most projects that include the diversification of up to 40 hectares of forest land, delegating it to six regional committees across India. Before this announcement, the rule was that projects requiring diversification of up to 5 hectares of forest area could be approved at the regional level. These however, exclude the ones that are concerned with mining or hydroelectric projects. The regional committees shall be chaired by the additional principal conservator of forests and will have three experts in forestry and allied disciplines. The shift in attitude from the UPA regime was made profoundly clear by Javadekar when he said that the present government is working in the backdrop of policy paralysis, and that the people of India would now see a government that takes decisions.
Along with this step, one of the other major changes made by this ministry is its approach to states that are affected with Left wing extremism. Javadekar said that the ministry has relaxed forest clearance rules that wouldn’t allow the State governments, which have Left wing extremism, to clear forest land by their own authority for projects needing up to five hectares instead of the present rule of one hectare. Green clearance for 6,000 km of border roads and road projects in these areas has been proposed. The move aims to bring development in these areas. The State governments in these areas will not be required to consult the Union MoEF for schools, clinics, electrical and telecommunication lines, irrigation canals, drinking water, etc. projects if they require less than five hectares of forest land. The move comes as a bold one to expedite development which hasn’t reached these areas due to consistent unrest and stifled bureaucracy, leading to plodding or non-existent alleviation programs.
Other welcome changes include greater transparency due to a new system of online submission of applications for environment and forest clearances. Javadekar said, “We have made it clear that there will be a simpler, cleaner, speedier and transparent (online) mechanism in the ministry. We are taking decisions based on policies and merit…Therefore, there is no discrimination. We don’t know who owns the project, who the man is. The issue is, ‘what is the merit of the case, what is the merit of the project’… we are deciding on that basis. “This goes further to strengthen the government’s policy of transparency, leading to crowding out of corruption and nepotism, and allays fears that the environment and forest ministry will be endorsing crony capitalism by keeping alive the archaic status quo mechanisms.
To summarise, from what has been seen till now from the new government in terms of the growth versus environment trade-off, the signs are positive and a welcome change from the UPA’s indecisive policy. While the proposals seek to decentralise and ease the whole procedure of clearances, they have also incorporated aspects of environmental protection such as online monitoring of industries that pollute the river Ganga. This stance adds to the optimism that India can adopt a growth model that gives us not only greater employment and infrastructural growth, but also isn’t reckless in managing the environment like China. The decentralisation proposal is now awaiting verification from the Union Ministry of Law and Justice. The populace can only hope that Javadekar holds true to his words of running a firm ministry which doesn’t ‘play around’ with clearances.
Mayukh is a third-year student of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Economics, Mayukh is someone who believes, that learning extends to exploring a plethora of interests which are mostly found outside prescribed curriculums. He enjoys all forms of public speaking and has represented his school and college successfully at several national level debates. His passions include food, football (a self-proclaimed die-hard Manchester United fan), economics, social policy and anything that involves debate and argument.