|River near Tawang: will it disappear?|
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Infrastructure projects are not meant to generate millions for private developers and their political patrons. They are for the common man, especially the locals who must have a say in these plans
Everyone knows that India is an incredible country. It counts many world firsts in its tally — being the largest democracy is one of them; a party unknown a few months ago, being elected to represent the ‘common man’ of the capital city, is another one.
However one particularity has been missed by the ever-vigilant breaking-news media: It is the first time in the history of governance that the Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas has also assumed the role of environment watchdog, holding the portfolio of Environment and Forests. It is true that Bharat is one of the few countries where contraries meet and even work together. But how Mr Veerappa Moily will achieve this feat is another issue.
Former Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan had walked on a tightrope. In her words, she was “caught in a tussle between industrial growth and green issues”. She felt like the Mridangam (a South Indian percussion instrument beaten on both sides), she had said as the industry was blaming ‘environment’ as the “single reason why the country has not been progressing at all”. Rumour has it that she was ‘sacked’ because she was not pushing files fast enough.
This is not the case with the new Minister. Since he took over the Environment Ministry last month, Mr Moily has cleared projects worth Rs 1.5 lakh crore. That is a lot. Even South Korean giant Posco has finally got its environmental clearance to build a Rs 52,000 crore steel plant in Odisha. Mr Moily has given the green light to more than 70-80 projects and has said that “the remaining will be approved before month-end”.
The Environment Minister follows the directives of his party boss. On December 21, 2013, the Congress vice president told the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry: “Many of you expressed your frustrations with environmental clearances, that they are delaying projects unduly. There is excessive administrative and judicial discretion. The loopholes are so big that you can drive a truck through some of them. Environmental and social damage must be avoided, but decisions must also be transparent, timely and fair.”
In a letter to the top brass of the UPA, Mr Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People wrote that, “You are right: The loopholes are so big in our environmental regulations that one can drive a truck through some of them. The loopholes in our environmental regulations are in fact so big that even whole dams, mines, mountains and rivers can be driven through them.”
Replying to the Prime Minister who stated during his recent Press conference that there were bottlenecks preventing timely environment clearances for industrial projects, Mr Thakkar asserts that the Expert Appraisal Committee for River Valley and Hydro Electric Projects, appointed by NDA Government, on has not rejected a single project in the last seven years. Mr Thakkar concludes that decisions should be not only transparent and fair, but they also need to be “democratic, well-informed and professional”. The stakeholders, in other words the common man, needs to be taken into confidence. China too is facing a similar dilemma.
According the to South China Morning Post: “While supporters often tout big dams as effective solutions to poverty and the country’s power shortages, critics have pointed to rampant environmental and geological hazards and simmering tensions over relocation disputes among those evicted to make way for dams.” The main issue is to find the right balance between the interests of the industrialists and the stakeholders who will live their entire lives with the negative environmental collaterals of the dams or mines.
An organisation from Arunachal Pradesh, where a large number of hydropower plants are being planned by the Union Government, has recently revolted. Save Mon Region Federation, a group comprising Buddhist monks and activists, opposed the construction of 15 hydropower projects in the border district of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The ‘planners’ in New Delhi counter that these plants will generate 3,500 MW power; it will be useful to the consumers and industrialists in the plains.
On January 9, the SMRF submitted a memorandum to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest. It said: “It is learnt that the Government has entered into 133 secret Memorandums of Understanding without following the mandatory procedures under the law with various power developers, maximum of which are private developers.” The SMRF also alleges that the hydropower companies are involved in “corruption and under the table dealings”. It further states that the MoUs in Tawang have been signed without taking the affected people’s consent. There is no doubt that most of the private developers have no technical knowledge about dams, but it is a good source of revenue for politicians starved after the disclosure of successive corruption scams such ‘Coalgate’. And let us not forget that elections are around the corner.
The SMRF’s memorandum notes that Tawang is inhabited by the Monpas with a population of less than 3,500 persons. The influx of people that will be brought by the project “will change the demographic profile and wipe out their culture and tradition and make the Monpas a minority”. The SMRF has a point. But even more serious is the fact that the area is claimed by China. In such sensitive areas, New Delhi should not act as a colonial power imposing unwanted projects and alienating voters. The Monpas have also rightly asserted that the fragile Himalayan region is located in a high seismic zone and that “experts have advised against mega dams in the region”.
Facing difficulties with locals, the Government in New Delhi has decided to export its technology to Bhutan which does have the legislation (and the strong democratic roots) to counter powerful lobbies. But here too, all is not rosy. Since July 2013, one part of the mega Punatsangchhu-I Hydroelectric Project started sinking. Huge rocks were found moving down towards the spot under excavation of the base of the dam. PHPA-I is the first stage of a joint India-Bhutan initiative started in May 2008 to generate 10,000 MW of hydropower by 2020. It appears that Bhutan is trading happiness for an uncertain ‘developed’ future.
It is time for the Union Government to realise that ‘people’ exist too. New Delhi has to understand that in the case of conflict of interest, it can’t clear the files at top speed in a biased manner; otherwise, the Government (even if its coffers are full) will be taught the meaning of democracy during the next election. It remains an amazing fact that an Oil Minister can look after Environment.