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Stretching the meaning of ‘reforestation’ beyond breaking point

This OpEd first appeared in The Caravan Magazine.

Ever since he took charge as the minister for the environment and forests in May last year, Prakash Javadekar has appeared to be in quite a hurry. His task, he has stated over and over again to the media whenever the opportunity has presented itself, is to fix the reputation the ministry had acquired under the earlier United Progressive Alliance government. International investors, he said, “had started withdrawing from India” due to the “delays” caused by the ministry, and the resultant loss to the country “could not be counted in rupees.” He is set on changing the ministry’s reputation from that of a “roadblock” to an office where no files are held up for too long.

But the ministry’s monthly report this June seemed to make even this energetic minister squirm. The journalist Jay Mazoomdar reported in the Indian Express that it granted forest clearances to 229 projects that month, more than the number it cleared in the National Democratic Alliance’s first three months in power last year. Forest clearance permits project proponents, such as mining companies, to legally replace forest cover with their projects, inevitably felling large numbers of trees in the process.

The government was already struggling with public perception of its proposed amendments to the land acquisition bill. It was being accused, on the streets and in television studios, of being anti-farmer. Wary, perhaps, of similar battles erupting over forest land, Javadekar gingerly attempted to set the terms of the discussion. According to Mazoomdar’s report, he ordered ministry officials to replace the word “clearance” with the word “reforestation” in all their communications. This is pure eyewash, and stretches the meaning of the latter word past breaking point.

The supposed justification for Javadekar’s directive was that every time an area of forest is cleared for an industrial project, its investors are legally required to pay to afforest an equal amount of non-forest land. But the implementation of this law over the past decade has been far from successful. In 2013, the Comptroller and Auditor General published a damning audit of compulsory afforestation, finding that, between 2006 and 2012, of all the land that should have been afforested, only 7 percent had been.

Javadekar’s predicament, of the environment ministry being seen as an impediment to progress, isn’t new. In the run-up to the 2014 election, the BJP drummed up charges against the United Progressive Alliance government that India’s economic growth was being held back by corruption and arbitrary delays in the ministry. The UPA buckled under the pressure, and in December 2013, just months before the general election, replaced the minister in charge, Jayanthi Natarajan, with Veerappa Moily, a politician who has faced multiple charges of corruption in the past. (Narendra Modi would later insinuate that under Natarajan companies had to pay a “Jayanthi tax” to get project files cleared by the ministry.) Moily stepped on the accelerator, reportedly clearing 100 projects in the space of a month not long after he assumed office. The move was seen as a last-ditch effort by the government to shake off its supposedly anti-investment image.

But how true is the impression that obtaining environmental clearance is the primary obstacle that holds up investments? Not very, journalists have found. In June 2012, the journalist M Rajshekhar reported in the Economic Times that, in the previous 30 years, the ministry cleared 94 percent of the coal mining projects that came to it. The average time taken to issue a clearance fell from five years between 1982 and 1999, to three years between 2000 and 2004, when the National Democratic Alliance was in power. Under the first and second terms of the UPA, the time required fell even further, to 17 and then to 11 months. Another study, whose results were published by the researcher Arunabha Ghosh in the Business Standard, looked at 11,174 project proposals that came to the ministry between 2003 and 2014, and found that 72 percent were cleared—and that 90 percent of these were cleared within a year of application.

Despite these findings, however, the government speaks of its own environment ministry as an inconvenient hurdle. Early this year, DNA reported that Javadekar had committed to a policy of “desh bachega to paryavaran bachega”—the environment will be saved if the country is saved. This suggests that India suffers an injustice when projects have to wait while their applications pass through the environment ministry. It is the national injustice of waiting that Javadekar’s ministry promises to fix.

This allocation of blame can have powerful consequences when combined with the popular resentment at the fact that India has remained a “developing” country well into adulthood. Javadekar would have us believe that the people who voted his party into power are hungry for a growth rate that is unencumbered by environmental concerns.

The minister’s rhetoric has a more elegant counterpart in economics: the environmental Kuznets curve, which plots environmental degradation against per capita income to describe an inverted U. The graph visualises the theory that it is feasible for nations or economic systems to initially engage in environmental destruction for the sake of economic growth, anticipating that, at some point, rising prosperity will lead to demand for environmental protection, and create the resources to supply it. This was an idea much favoured by the World Bank up to the 1990s, as it funded massive infrastructure projects in the developing world.

But advances in environmental economics have compelled newer ways of thinking. For instance, a 2013 World Bank report that examined the impact of environmental degradation in India concluded there would be important benefits to balancing ecological concerns with economic ones. Not doing so, it noted, could hamper the country’s long-term growth prospects.

Javadekar seems oblivious to this shift. This was apparent earlier this year when he met Jaynandan Porte, a farmer who travelled to Delhi with a delegation of villagers from Chhattisgarh’s Sarguja district, which falls within the Hasdeo-Arand coalfields. Porte and his group asked the minister not to allow the auction of mining rights for coal blocks in the area, in order to protect the livelihoods of Gond farmers. The farmer told me that Javadekar met him warmly, but didn’t seem to understand why he was worried. Javadekar ended the brief meeting by saying that Porte’s concerns were only those of the older generation, and that Porte’s son, if asked, would be in favour of coal mining.

Porte left the meeting crestfallen. To him, economic concerns and environmental concerns were intertwined. His only source of livelihood was his small plot of land, on which he laboured every day. If that was taken from him, what would he have to leave for his children? Javadekar may zealously pursue the environmental Kuznets curve, but, as the journalist Mayank Aggarwal has noted in Mint, villagers in the Hasdeo-Arand region say mining has wrecked the lives of many people, who have been displaced from their homes and not rehabilitated, have been robbed of their livelihoods, and have found their air and water polluted.

Still, the minister appears set on his path, as is evident from his recent targeting of formerly inviolate “no-go” areas. These areas were demarcated under the UPA government, as part of an exercise to identify which of India’s nearly 800 coal blocks should be declared off-limits for mining. As the environment minister between 2009 and 2011, Jairam Ramesh decided that almost half the blocks should be closed to mining. His reasoning for this went beyond the purely conservationist: the protected coal blocks were “critical energy reserves,” meant to ensure the country’s energy security in the distant future.

The NDA has been far less interested in enforcing such protections. An RTI response obtained by Greenpeace revealed that as of December last year, there were mining operations in at least 32 coal blocks in no-go areas. Early this September, the journalists Subhayan Chakraborty and Nitin Sethi reported in the Business Standard that the ministry had brought down the number of no-go areas from 206 to less than 35. Most of Hasdeo-Arand, where Jaynandan Porte is from, is excluded from the latest list.

Incredibly, one of the reasons cited for this move was a lack of relevant data. In internal communications, the government declared that it did not have mapped information of streams, hydropower projects and irrigation works across the country to help it assess the necessity of protecting certain forest areas. Its solution was to ignore the need for this information, and prune the no-go list anyway.

The environment ministry is supposed to represent the interests of people likely to be affected by large projects, and to give them a voice in the government. It is the ministry’s job to ensure that development decisions do not compromise the basic rights of some people in favour of the privileges of others.

Today, though, senior environmentalists, bureaucrats and lawyers all say that the very character of the ministry has changed. Up to 2011, it was an open office, welcoming of those who had suggestions. Its documents were easily accessible then, whereas now one has to file numerous RTI applications to know what changes have been proposed to specific rules or clauses. Recent efforts to review environmental laws, through the TSR Subramanian Committee and the Shailesh Nayak Committee, have added credence to these fears. Both bodies were composed entirely of bureaucratic experts, and offered little or no opportunity for public participation. It appears the ministry has been transformed into a distant, inaccessible node of power.

And, as if his inaccessibility and verbal sophistry weren’t troubling enough, the environment minister also seems to have grown deeply suspicious of people who raise environmental concerns. When a series of critical reports on Delhi’s air quality appeared in the Indian Express earlier this year, Javadekar alleged that it was backed by “vested interests … that do not want India to progress,” and promised that the government would “take action” against them. India’s forests and lakes face a bleak future indeed if the man responsible for protecting them believes that anyone raising environmental concerns is conspiring against the nation.

Manju Menon is the Director of Namati-Center for Policy Research’s Environmental Justice program in India.


November 2, 2015 | Manju Menon

Region: South Asia

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