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Need for a Ministry of Development Impact
By Sudhirendar Sharma

Since the planners are primarily concerned about faster growth, post-project assessment of current development can only help us understand the real value of environment.

Tribals opposing Posco's plant in Orissa
      By writing to the Karnataka Chief Minister on the controversial Gundia Power Project and by announcing that his Ministry will act stringent in granting environmental clearances, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has charmed environmentalists within a month of assuming office. Buoyed by green optimism, many activists did work overtime to generate ambitious wish-list of tasks to help reverse the growth-led ecological decline the country has witnessed in the recent past. But the disturbing question remains: Will the initial euphoria last a full term?
Since the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has cautioned him against posing any regulatory hurdles to growth, Jairam's green demeanour ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. One would not doubt his sensitivity towards ecological issues though, but affecting image makeover on a ministry that has long lost its sheen would warrant courage and conviction to withstand growing corporate pressure for speedy environment clearances of projects. Who would know it better than Jairam Ramesh himself, who had held commerce, industry and power portfolio in the previous government?      

Since the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has cautioned him against posing any regulatory hurdles to growth, New Environment Minister's green demeanour ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Such pressures have been adequately exerted during the past three years, since the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification had come into force on September 14, 2006. EIA has become a mere apology for granting clearances with as many as 2,746 projects getting approval in less than three years. At an unprecedented rate of 5 projects a day, some of the environmentally notorious projects got ministry's nod. The list includes 134 thermal power projects, 587 non-coal mining projects, 952 industrial projects, 1,073 construction projects and 1 nuclear power project.

Within months a ministry responsible for environment protection had transformed into the Ministry of Environmental Clearances. No surprise, as the ministry could neither diligently approve projects nor genuinely monitor the mitigating measures that should have arisen from honest and explicit EIAs. Nothing less than reviewing the dubious EIAs of the approved projects can bring the ministry back on track! A new environmental tribunal has been proposed but it goes without saying that enforcing legislative safeguards for environment protection have rarely worked in the absence of a strong political will.      

Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) has become a mere apology for granting clearances with as many as 2,746 projects getting approval in less than three years. At an unprecedented rate of 5 projects a day, some of the environmentally notorious projects got ministry's nod.

The Environment Appellate Authority is a perfect example. It was constituted under a 1997 Supreme Court order with judicial powers to hear appeals against EIA clearances on mega projects. But the authority has remained trapped in 'institutional hypnosis' ever since, not visiting a single controversial site before proclaiming its judgement. Without doubt, most appeals have been turned down. Shockingly, a recent RTI response has revealed that the members of the authority did undertake travel to Shirdi, Tirupati and Banaras to apprise themselves of the environmental impact of offerings of flower, tonsuring and mustard oil respectively at the three locations!

Increasing number of People are opposing the new Development projects
      Will the proposal tribunal be any different? Adding another piece of legislation may do no good when the system of compliance has been crippled to the core. The polluted Yamuna River in the capital mocks at the Water Pollution Control Act of 1974. While the world fights climate change, we seem to be making a mockery of protecting the environment. Can the minister liberate environment legislative systems from the clutches of the power politics? It is easier said when the planners have embarked on a growth curve that cares least about the environment.

In a political environment where symptoms, not systems, are the order of the day, expecting Jairam Ramesh to lay bare the well-embedded benefit-sharing mechanism of development processes would be unrealistic. The flip side of the story is that the Environment Ministry of the 1970's has seemingly outlived its relevance, and it is about time the ministry be given a ceremonial closure and replaced with a Ministry of Development Impact. Only post-project assessment of current development can help us understand the real value of environment that is being considered `hurdle to growth' now!

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  Environmentalist, development analyst and columnist  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, a critic of the contemporary development processes. A prolific writer, he was a senior correspondent with India's leading weekly, India Today, and the science editor for The Pioneer newspaper. He holds degrees in agriculture and environmental science and lives in Delhi. He is attached with the Ecological Foundation.

Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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