February 21, 2014
As India’s April-May parliament elections draw closer, no major party is even talking of safeguarding the country’s environment. Instead, a former minister is taking on the process by which the ministry selects consultants to carry out environmental impact assessments (EIA).
Maneka Gandhi, former environment minister and leader of the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has written a letter to current environment minister Veerappa Moily alleging “blatant and unchecked corruption” in the environment clearance process, of which the EIA is an integral part.
The letter, a copy of which is with this correspondent, has questioned the present mechanism of giving environmental clearances only through accredited consultants.
In 2009, the Ministry of Environment and Forests made it mandatory for all environment consultants to get accredited with the newly formed National Accreditation Board for Education and Training (NABET) under the Quality Council of India (QCI). The professed aim was to improve the quality of EIAs. The ministry stipulated that it would only accept an EIA done by an accredited consultant.
Gandhi has charged that the QCI – which controls the accreditation process – consists largely of retired bureaucrats including those from the environment ministry.
“The primary objective of accreditation of consultants was to improve the quality of EIA. It has totally failed in this as is evident from many of the EIA reports prepared by QCI/ NABET accredited consultants. Most of the EIA reports of these consultancies have been questioned at National Green Tribunal,” she wrote.
Gandhi alleged that “in absence of any checks and balances by MoEF (Ministry of Environment and Forests) against QCI, the scheme formulated by QCI/NABET seems to have been made only to take bribes and made money for NABET members, assessors and committee members …There is blatant and unchecked corruption.”
The former minister complained that the norms have been twisted “to bring in a closed club of so called highly experienced subject specific experts banning most consultants (about 150 EIC consultant organisations have been derecognised).” Asked about the issue, Gandhi told thethirdpole.net, “Yes, I have written the letter to Moily on corruption in a green department and expect him to take appropriate action.” Moily has not responded yet, she added.
Other observers of the goings on in the ministry have also alleged serious conflict of interest, saying many experts are members of NABET as well as various committees in the ministry. Reportedly, they also run EIA training courses and many of their near relatives are direct beneficiaries when it comes to obtaining environmental clearances.
Gandhi’s letter follows a charge made by the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi, who had talked about a “Jayanthi tax”. The broad hint was that Moily’s predecessor Jayanthi Natarajan was corrupt. Modi’s comment came almost immediately after Natarajan lost the ministry, reportedly at the instance of Prime Minister Manmohon Singh and of Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the ruling Congress party. Natarajan was facing flak from other ministers for “delaying industrialization”. After her resignation, there were reports that around 300 files of projects awaiting clearance were found in her house.
Bureaucrats in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) have made no secret of their distaste for environmental safety rules. At a recent meeting in Kolkata, Anil Swarup – chairman of the Project Monitoring Group of the Cabinet Secretariat working directly under the PMO for facilitating execution of projects worth more than Rs 1,000 crores (US$163 million) – said that environment had been the “biggest deterrent as it covered 40% of all the outstanding issues involving the projects.” He added that his committee had “scheduled weekly meetings to sort out the environmental issues.”
The pendulum has swung to the other end now, with current minister Veerappa Moily approving hundreds of projects a day, until the election announcement stopped him. India has a rule that fresh policy decisions cannot be taken once election dates are announced.
The projects that Moily approved before the ban included field trials of genetically modified food crops and a steel plant by South Korean firm Posco. Both projects had been kept on hold by his two predecessors – Natarajan, and Jairam Ramesh before her. Moily recently declared that he had cleared projects worth of Rs 1.5 lakh crores (US$24.5 billion) within a month of taking charge. Environmentalists accuse him of giving green rules a complete go-by in the process.
Natarajan had given quite a few contentious clearances herself. After a prod from the PMO, the area under protected forests that were ‘unprotected’ in 2013 was the maximum since the protection law first came into effect in the 1980s. Under Natarajan, the environment ministry had cleared 33 coal mining projects in the first five months of 2013, which would require clearing about 8,700 hectares of forests. In 2011 and 2012, ministry had cleared 30 such projects, which had meant clearing around 7,230 hectares of hitherto protected forests.
“We have found that among the forest-linked projects for which final decision has been already made by ministry in 2013, about 95% projects have got the nod,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of Delhi-based NGO Centre for Science and Environment.
Clearly neither of the big political parties considers environment important and only provides lip service to it. Irrespective of who comes to power in May, this situation is unlikely to change.