The Space for Environmental Concerns Has Shrunk

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar during a press conference. Credit: PTI Photo

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar during a press conference. Credit: PTI Photo

This piece was originally published in Business Standard.

In one year, has the women and child development ministry done more for the welfare of children and women? Has the agriculture ministry done enough for agriculture and farmers? Answers may vary but setting the yardsticks to measure the performance of a ministry is usually that simple. Except, in the case of the environment ministry.

The performance of the environment ministry is judged these days by conflicting yard-sticks. One set of benchmark measures whether the ministry has protected the environment and natural resources enough and the other measures whether it has smoothly and without much complaint aided the Indian economic growth story.

Since green concerns got mainstreamed in Indian polity no environment minister has escaped this schizophrenic life. One day showcasing how he/she has been super-efficient in clearing projects at break neck speed and another day desperately displaying how he/she has acted to protect the environment (Remember, even earlier when stories emerged of clearances being delayed, rarely did anyone complain of projects being eventually rejected).

Prakash Javadekar faces a similar situation after a year in the hot seat, in fact he has his hands tied up a bit more than his UPA predecessors. He operates as part of a government which thinks of environmental regulations more as impediments and is less patient with debates. But, his ministry’s mandate requires a constant discussion, even argument, with the infrastructure ministries, whose core objectives is to push ahead for growth of their sectors regardless.

At the beginning of his term, Javadekar focused and publicised his break-neck speed and clean desk. But once the too-often narrated comparative with the UPA II on this count lost its novelty, unlike most of his cabinet colleagues, he faced a good quantum of critical press. His affable character has not been able to douse the criticism. Simultaneously, the ministry passed a flurry of executive orders diluting and changing environmental norms, which of course he did not talk about. But the media was often on to it. Many dilutions were done under the instructions from the PMO. There have been some much-needed changes as well but these have got lost in the sea of dilutions.

By now, his clearances and decisions are being scrutinised not for speed but for the due diligence followed in ensuring environmental integrity. Several fail the test too easily.

The independent committee set up to review the green laws smacked of a pre-fixed match – it largely recommended things the government was murmuring about internally and worse, in several cases what the government had already gone about achieving to change/dilute the rules.

All the while Javadekar kept promising that clearances would be made ‘efficient’ and monitoring of compliance with green laws would be tightened. The record of the first year is out and the latter has not happened at all. His record is more dismal than that of the UPA on this count.

In the name of enhanced monitoring of compliance, he has sold the idea of greater automation and technology along with greater self-reporting by the industry. This means little when the rules and benchmarks have been watered down and the staff just does not exist to monitor, regulate and act – the consequence of the entire government looking upon compliance with green laws as merely license raj. He promises this would change with the new and changed laws he is spearheading. The experience over the year leaves little to trust but one wants to be proven wrong.

Like his predecessors he faces the unenviable task of arguing and engaging aggressively with the infrastructure ministries, who most often display a disdain for environmental concerns. The disdain is licensed by the political tone a government’s leadership sets. This was true in UPA II as well but the nature of the government under Manmohan Singh permitted a more argumentative cabinet. Not in the NDA.

In this government, the environment ministry has keeled over too easy or even pro-actively adopted the infra ministries’ mandate. The ministry has also shown lesser respect for public opinion by diluting spaces for citizens to participate in decision making. This squeeze on democratic space for both the mandate of the environment ministry and the voice of citizens is unhealthy. An unfortunate symptom of this is the minister’s tactics of dismissing tough questions at times with obfuscations or worse still, to give answers that are uneconomical with facts.

His dilemma and piquant position is understandable. But his tactics are not. The vocal middle class on whose aspirational desires Narendra Modi built his campaign also imbibes a strong streak of environmentalism today. It’s not the environmentalism of the poor or the marginal fighting for economic rights to natural resources. It’s a more impatient version borne out of what environmentalist Sunita Narain calls the Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome. Together these different streams of environmentalism will only increase the scrutiny India’s environment minister faces each year. The second year is going to be tougher Mr Javadekar.

Read the original piece in Business Standard here.