In conversation with the environment minister.
As the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government nears the completion of two years in office, the focus of the environment ministry is on assisting the ease of doing business but only for those who are responsible. Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, in an interview with Nitin Sethi, says a new online system is helping unlock a significant amount of investments and provide jobs. He also said the government was in favour of empowering tribals and laws of the land would be implemented before giving clearances. Edited excerpts:
What has the environment ministry under you been able to achieve for ease of business?
My mandate as I perceive, to protect the five elements of nature and maintain balance properly. That is the basic from where I start. If I can count the basic five highlights of two years. The forest cover has increased by 3,500 square kilometres. Mangroves have increased by 100 square kilometres. It will grow further in next three years. Industrial pollution is now better monitored and has been reduced because of our emission standards being made more stringent. So the pollution becomes less. Third, we are not providing ease of doing business as usual, we are providing ease of doing responsible business. The ministry that was regarded as road-block ministry where files used to stop – the average time for project approval with proper conditions was 600 days earlier, now it’s down to 190 days and I shall make it 100 days.
How we have achieved this? By taking policy decisions – such as general approval for defence infrastructure. Then decentralising forest clearances below 40 ha. Now there are ten regional offices where states are partners. So, 90% of such cases don’t come to me. Then we have standardised terms of references for clearances of all industries. Therefore, the time it earlier used to take was a year now it is one month. The 45th day it is deemed approved. If expert appraisal committee has to say something then it will or in 45 days standardised TOR will apply by default.
We have made systems transparent with online systems where project proponent and we also can track where his file is pending. I appointed more expert appraisal committees. This has unlocked 10 lakh crores of investments and 10 lakh direct jobs.
Can these numbers be proven on paper?
I shall give you the list of all 2,000 approvals that we have given. The other major achievement is the Paris climate change meet where we protected India’s interest. We turned the negative image in to a positive one, networked with developing and developed world and we played an important role and protected India’s development space.
One of the parameters to measure your work could be the rejection rate of projects for forest and other clearances?
No, instead of rejections – there have been rejections, I shall give you details separately – earlier also rejections were few – it is the same condition now. What difference we have made is that we have brought transparency and improvement of appraisal process and more scientific.
We have done re-categorisation of industries based on pollution load. We have come out with a new formula of CEPI – Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index.
But some critics say it’s weaker than the previous index…
No, no, it’s not weaker, it’s stronger. It will engulf even more industrial areas.
But you lifted the moratorium on new industries in eight industrial areas while you reworked the index…
It was all reviewed and moratorium were removed by others (during UPA [United Progressive Alliance]). They were arbitrary. They imposed CEPI and then they removed. I have not given any concession to any except one. They removed 12 from moratorium I have only done one in two years. It’s the past legacy of making rules and giving exceptions.
You talk of NDA government focussing on monitoring but you have less than 1 officer per 1,000 cleared units to regulate through the regional offices…
First there were only six regional offices. I made it ten. There were only two or three skeletal staff, I have made 10-20 staff. By June you will see all offices are much better. But still, monitoring is with the aid of technology. Our expert appraisal committees will go to the site through Google maps. So nobody can now fudge.
This is during the process of clearance but once the projects are cleared who monitors them?
I am coming to that. So compliance, as this is my greatest innovation, two thousand four hundred industries have installed 24*7 monitoring sensors and these have started giving results. As far as whether people are following conditions for environmental and forests clearance, pollution part is better monitored, the other aspects, we are re-energising the regional committees. The National Green Tribunal [NGT] has quashed the UPA orders that you pass a board resolution accepting the violation and pay a penalty and get away. I won’t do this now. I will appoint new committees which will go to each spot and see and go and put correct conditions.
So you are saying, if someone files a complaint of violation against a company, you shall send a team to each site to investigate?
No this is for those units which have not obtained environmental clearances. Under UPA if someone had not taken an environmental clearance the company would pass a board resolution and the court would fine Rs. 25,000 per director to the company that was all. We are coming with civil penalties act which will fine Rs. 10,000-10 crore as per gravity of problem and this will have legal teeth and will be justiciable. Inter-ministerial consultations are happening now on it. Very soon it will go to the cabinet. We are coming out with a compliance mechanism. This will cover all violations but I think for forest violations I shall have to amend that act.
As far as pollution is concerned. We get alerts, including to my mobile, when pollution limits are exceeded. Everybody gets it.
So in such cases of violation and exceeding pollution limits how many times actions has been taken so far?
I shall come to that. This is first revolution. This was never done before. This is first step. Now, I have to give evidential value to this data by an amendment to the law because today it’s only for lab test and inspection. This has been just three months. We are stabilising the system. The last month’s gross violators – we closed 655 industries – telling them that they will not be allowed to operate till they improve. So non-compliance we are punishing. To give it legal evidential value I need an amendment to the law.
Do we expect it by December?
Immediately, it’s one single amendment to the law. Again, earlier the law was so vague. We don’t want the rules to be so weak so the civil penalty law is major evolution.
You think you shall find support in Rajya Sabha for this?
Yes, who shall stand in favour of pollution and violations? Am sure CAMPA bill will also be passed.
In the CAMPA (forest fund) bill are you willing to make the amendments to protect the consent of tribals and other forest dwellers?
This is already covered. You every time don’t write that we accept Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s constitution. That is law of the land. So you don’t write that all the laws existing we shall follow.
So the consent of tribals and other forest dwellers for plantations on their lands shall be required under the bill?
That is already there. Where is the issue of consent? We are not using the funds outside the forestland.
But all forestlands are under Forest Rights Act (FRA)…
Where pattas are there there we will not do plantations. That is written in my rules (to the bill). My rules are ready.
On dams on Ganga, there have earlier been differences between you and your colleague Uma Bharti…
She has written a strong letter to you…
…which is now in the Supreme Court and subsequently the court has asked the water resources ministry to present its views, as it found them differing. Have the differences been resolved?
There were no differences, there was misunderstanding. It was the perception of our presumed affidavit. But when we shared our affidavit with her, it was all clear, so there are no differences.
So power, water resources ministry and you now have the same stand on dams on Ganga?
Yes. Modi government has taken Ganga as a national river and to maintain ecological flow we have taken a major initiative. The British governor in 1916, the kings on the banks of Ganga and Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya decided that a continuous unfettered flow of water of 1,000 cusecs will flow at Har-ki-Pauri at Haridwar. That is what we have taken this policy back up to the origin of Mandakini, Alaknanda and Bhagirathi.
So if there is any less water in any of these tributaries than 1,000 cusecs you shall break the existing dams?
That is a different thing. Existing dams you can’t break. That is not the issue. Or for natural reasons, in lean seasons if there is no 1,000 cusecs water flowing in the tributaries then what can you do? But this is the condition for any project. We have taken in to account all the feelings and science and taken a very correct decision as far as Ganga is concerned.
You are sure that a 100 year old document is a true scientific basis to take a decision today?
Yes, it was. There is no difference.
You had some months back given guidance to states to involve private entities in afforestation in forestlands. What has progressed on this front?
No proposal has come from state as yet. We had circulated the guidelines. Forest is a state subject. My concept is very clear. How will we increase afforestation? First, we shall unlock CAMPA funds of Rs. 42,000 crore so in next three years with better monitoring and capacities afforestation will increase.
You have only 21% forestland. That won’t grow. But our target is 33% forest cover. So tree cover outside the forest has to grow. So a major thrust is on agro-forestry and making tree cover outside the forests. We have already partnered for growing forests along the highways. We have guaranteed them whatever forests you make it will not be declared as forestland. We have said the same to Railways. The Ganga basin authority has accepted a good plan for more afforestation in the Ganga catchment. I see forest growing along all highways, railways tracks and Ganga even in agro-forestry in next 10 years because we are guaranteeing that any density of plantation you do and tree cover you grow that will not be declared as forests – that is the only promise I am making – they can harvest they can do movements.
You are importing Rs. 40,000 crore rupees timber today, which means exporting jobs. I want to give jobs here.
Fourteenth finance commission has given weightage for the first time to forest cover. Thirteenth finance commission had not given anything.
They had also given Rs. 5,000 crore…
Okay. But now this is much more. I have written letters to all chief ministers that forest has been one factor in increasing the allocation under 14th finance commission so you should provide for it in your state budgets also.
In a recent reply to Parliament you said a total of more than 75,000 ha of forests has been given under stage I and II of forests clearances.
That one must understand. We were 30 crores when we got independence. Now we are 126 crores. We have only 2.5% of the world’s land and 17% of human population as well as 17% of the cattle population. There will always be tension and pressure on land and water. We have to save and use water and land more efficiently.
So forest we will grow. Forest is not just on forest land. It is forest outside forest land also. That was not growing because of archaic laws which didn’t allow farmers to grow trees because they could not cut it. We are going to incentivise growing forests outside forests and properly use the wood.
Niti Ayog says next year GM (Genetically Modified) Food Crops would be allowed that will help attain economic growth. Why next year, why not now? You can do it today.
The issue is, we have allowed till today only safe field trials. We have not allowed any commercialisation of food crops. There is only one proposal that has come – GM Mustard. It is under consideration.
No, with our committee.
Is there a deadline?
In three months that should be over. Also we are taking in all the views. Some who say allow it immediately and others who say don’t allow it. We shall have dialogue with everyone and we are taking consensus decision.
Unlike your other clearance processes why doesn’t this have a strict deadline?
It is not about a deadline. It is about a new initiative. Already the GM Brinjal case is in the court and so we have to take everybody along and we shall.
What has been left yet to be done in the ministry after two years?
Compliance, compliance, compliance. We have put our house in order and put processes in order. But compliance is our problem not just for environmental laws. I have amended six waste management rules and brought a seventh, construction and demolition waste rules. But capacities have to be built in local bodies to carry out that and better compliance.
How will you enforce compliance across all municipalities?
I shall tell you. First time, ministry has a filed a petition against erring local bodies in NGT.
This is on waste management?
No on some violations and failures.
So for next three years will there be a benchmark on how many people you need to monitor the thousands of industries?
It will be civil penalties law.
No, I was talking of human capacities to enforce…
We shall increase and with more technologies. We shall use maps and live streaming. With technology we shall change the whole regime and the message will go down the line. I have made emission standards more stringent for more than 20 industries. This took two years but we consulted industry. I asked my officers to look at the best practices of the world and move a step closer to that. We can reach the best practice in two or three steps.
On the coal issue, your ministry has been engaging with coal ministry on an inviolate forest area policy for past 2 years. In the meanwhile coal blocks have been given clearance on a piece meal basis. When do we see a final inviolate policy?
We have already done many exercises on it. We shall definitely take a policy decision on it.
Will we have an inviolate forest policy?
I can’t say at this time. If say, you are getting Uranium from some forest then what will you do?
For coal will there be an inviolate forest policy?
We have asked existing coal mines to be exhausted completely.
But will we have an inviolate policy for coal mining?
We will come out with what is violate what is not violate or use some other words to make it clearer. We will definitely come out with it in proper time.
The on-going discussions between your ministry and tribal affairs ministry on (changing) the need for consent from forest dwellers before giving forest clearance…
This is malicious propaganda.
There is enough documentation now available in public.
No. Absolutely not. Forest Rights Act is not our law. It is ministry of tribal affairs law, so we can’t change it.
But every ministry is required to implement all the laws of the land?
So we are implementing. We have not made a single compromise.
But you have had several proposals from your ministry about changing this. So much has been written about it.
It’s been written about but that is my pain and anguish that without confirming people are accusing unnecessarily. I have worked with tribals and I am with the tribal movement.
That is beside the point sir. You are accusing journalists of having written wrong things.
No, no, I am not accusing media. What we are saying is that we have no intention whatsoever (to dilute the consent powers). Actually we want to empower tribals through forest policy and afforestation programmes and through minimum support price.
To have it clear and explicit, would you say that tribals and forest dwellers consent would continue to be essential for forest clearances?
Whatever is legally needed is mandatory.
So the August 2009 order (of environment ministry which makes consent mandatory as per FRA) will not be amended?
In the last two years we have not amended it.
So you will not amend it anytime in the future?
I have not amended it in two years. That is my certificate.
But you have moved several proposals.
No I have never tried to.
So in the next three years you will not amend the 2009 order?
I have not amended it in the last two years that is what I have actually done.
Would you also not do it in the next three years?
Why are you not asking about next 50 years? We want to rule for fifty years.
In this tenure…I have still not got a categorical answer.
My answer is, because I feel hurt. When we are in favour of empowered of tribals and such questions are asked, I am hurt.
This interview originally appeared in Business Standard.