Why bother at all with environment laws, Mr Ahluwalia?

Discussing reforms at a newspaper office in Delhi, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, made a few candid points (read here).

The most important reform, he said, was to free the large number of infrastructure projects which were held up because "our processes are such, that (a) it takes very long, and (b) I think the sensitivity to these clearances have hugely increased because in the public mind, it is somehow felt that these projects are leading to the damage of the environment".

Ahluwalia was only echoing his boss Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who, in his statement on coal block allocation earlier this month, blamed "cumbersome processes involved in getting statutory clearances" for the private parties' failure to achieve their production targets. This was, of course, not the first time Dr Singh singled out environmental norms as an impediment to growth.

PTI

At the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit organised by TERI in February 2011, Singh underlined how it was "necessary to ensure that these (green) regulatory standards do not bring back the License Permit Raj". Even the Reserve Bank, in its quarterly review released in January 2011, blamed "environmentalism" for a one-third dip in FDI.

What triggered such strong sentiments in UPA-II is, however, unclear. During Jairam Ramesh's tenure, the MoEF cleared 99 per cent of the projects referred to it. His face-off with coal minister Sriprakash Jaiswal over 'go' and 'no-go' forest areas ended in Ramesh conceding 85 per cent of the disputed areas to mining.

The 11th Five-Year Plan projected a target of 50,000 MW of additional thermal power capacity while the 12th Plan aims at another 1,00,000 MW. During the 2007-11 period, the green ministry granted environmental clearance to 2,10,000 MW of power, which is 60,000 MW in excess of the combined Plan target of 1,50,000 MW by 2017.

Since 1982, the MoEF has approved 94 per cent of coal mining projects. Between 1982 and 1999, the average delay in project clearance was five years. During the BJP rule, it came down to three years. The UPA-I government further slashed it to 17 months. The UPA-II takes 11 months to decide on a project and its rejection rate has been just 1 per cent. Yet, Ahluwalia thinks "half the time the problem is we could not achieve the (growth) target because we could not get clearances".

The plan panel boss goes on to explain how the method of clearances for environment and forest has been arbitrary, non-scientific and non-transparent: "There is a very elaborate procedure for giving environment clearance for whatever is declared a forest area. Now we know half of the declared forest area is actually degraded forest where hardly a blade of grass grows. The procedures for degraded forest area should be simpler because what you are doing is imposing the same compensatory forestry requirement but the sensitivity you have to show is much lower when you see the forest is degraded than if it is a dense forest."

So who decides what is degraded (considering it a euphemism for ecologically dispensable)? Scientists (biologists and ecologists), one presumes. But Ahluwalia dismisses their expertise as activism in one broad stroke: "Because we have not taken it (forest clearances) seriously, the only expertise and only acknowledged ones are those of activists who are actually protecting the forests... Until you make the system subject to scientific criteria, why would neutral experts emerge?"

What Ahluwalia conveniently overlooks is that, in the absence of so-called neutral experts and scientific criteria, the official expertise of the cabinet and GoMs decided what is degraded or dispensable, by conveniently slashing the proposed no-go forest zones by 85 per cent. So what exactly is he complaining about?

Ahluwalia, in fact, is unhappy with what he calls "silo mentality" and wants to protect the bureaucracy against the file system that he finds "extremely damaging" because "you write something and you don't know what the next fellow is going to write or what consideration he is going to bring to say that you are wrong" and "all of that becomes open to questioning".

Green clearances are considered within the explicit provisions of three central laws - Environment Protection Act, Forest Conservation Act and Wildlife Protection Act - which are available to every bureaucrat. Why should one feel vulnerable to scrutiny if one has not violated the legal framework while granting clearances? Or is it in Ahluwalia's case that sidestepping the laws becomes difficult, even risky, when it involves file noting?

Otherwise why should he advocate junking the file system in favour of "speaking orders"? Of course, he wants groups of ministers to have "a free-flowing discussion and record minutes which then says that all of these views were taken into account and this is the right thing to do" to end "administrative paralysis".

A couple of months before he left the green ministry, Jairam Ramesh considered 59 project proposals in a little over two hours during a 2011 meeting of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), rejecting only four. That works out to be less than three minutes of "free-flowing discussion" per project. On most occasions, considering "all views" simply means brushing aside inputs by NBWL members, citing lack of time. Often minutes of the meetings are tweaked to claim a consensus even after members submit written objections.

The government's latest solution to fast track clearances is to set up the National Investment Approval Board (NIAB). Argues Ahluwalia: "The Finance Minister said the NIAB should be chaired by the prime minister. Now, such a board will not take arbitrary decisions." It must be incidental that the NBWL that has been clearing 99 per cent of the projects referred to it is also chaired by the prime minister.

The Centre is already tracking the progress of every investment above Rs 1,000 crore to ensure that these projects go through. Earlier this year, the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council asked all ministries to provide details of public sector projects above Rs 1,000 crore, prompting them "to indicate whether there are any sector specific issues such as environment and forest clearances which may be causing delays".

The idea, clearly, is to subvert the green laws. Ahluwalia himself gave it away: "The finance minister made an excellent suggestion. He said that for projects above a critical size, presumably in the infrastructure space, the rules of business should be amended so that the permission that has to be given is given (emphasis mine)."

Really? Why not get the green laws abolished in Parliament instead?