Jairam Ramesh

‘I don’t subscribe to the mad scramble to clear projects’

Print edition : February 21, 2014

Jairam Ramesh. Photo: PTI

Interview with Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Rural Development.

JAIRAM RAMESH, Union Minister for Rural Development, is the architect of the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill (LARR) and various other land-related policies of the United Progressive Alliance government. As one who handled the Environment portfolio for more than two years, he explained why fast-tracking was not a desirable option to clear industrial projects: “I hate the word fast-track. It gives me the impression that we are going to give up all speed breakers. Taking off speed breakers is fine, but due diligence has to be followed.” Excerpts from an interview:

There has been a lot of talk on fast-track clearances and files being held up. It is felt that the government wants to rectify the impression of policy paralysis and send across a message to industry that it is investor-friendly. Do you see any inherent problem in the fast-tracking approach, especially when scarce natural resources are involved?

I do not buy this argument that delayed environmental clearances of mega projects are responsible for the economic slowdown. This is a fanciful view. This is not to say that projects should not be cleared within the stipulated time frame provided for in the clearance procedures. Yes, projects do get delayed particularly from the point of view of forest clearances as the clearances have to come from the States. It takes time for the State governments to give these clearances. I don’t think that we should get into a mad scramble to clear projects and give a go-by to the Environment (Protection) Act and the Forest (Conservation) Act. If a government finds these Acts obstructionist, then it should just say “sorry. We are declaring a law holiday as far as these two laws are concerned and for the next ten years, we are going to have click-free clearances”. But we have them on the statute books. We passed these laws with a noble intent and we should not be bypassing them. By all means, let us be business-like; by all means, let us root out all rent-seeking in environmental regulation. Unfortunately, rent-seeking has been associated with environmental regulation. I made a sincere effort to root it out in the 26 months that I was there in the Ministry. When I joined, the reputation of the Ministry was that it was an ATM Ministry. I had given a solution when I left. I had suggested to the Prime Minister in writing that for coal-mining projects “do not interfere with the due diligence of the MoEF particularly in the no-go areas”. I said “let these projects come to a Group of Ministers” [GoM]. There was a GoM under Mr Pranab Mukherjee’s chairmanship. I said “let this GoM take a holistic view of the projects”. The Forest Ministry and the Environment Ministry could not be expected to take a gross domestic product-centric view. They necessarily have to take an ecology-centred or biodiversity-centred view. The GoM then should say or rather have the courage to say and put out a speaking order that from an environmental and forest view, a particular project in a no-go area cannot be cleared for environmental reasons but in the larger interests of 8 per cent GDP growth, power generation or infrastructure, it should be cleared and then the decision should be placed in the public domain. I thought this was a good via media, but, unfortunately, the government did not accept this.

Is there not a problem of multiplicity of authorities as well in matters concerning natural resources? Be it the new LARR Act, the Empowered Group GoMs, the National Green Tribunal or the PM’s Project Monitoring Group, could these bodies and laws not act in tandem?

The LARR deals more with acquisition and social impact assessment. What happens to livelihoods of land losers or livelihood losers? Land acquisition is different from environmental assessment. Land acquisition is the first priority of the LARR Act, the first primary activity and environmental assessment occurs later. We cannot have one law that subsumes land, the environment and water. That is not feasible. But we also cannot say that protection of forests is not important, or that looking at livelihood security in the context of land acquisition is not important, or that pollution is not an important issue. It is possible to integrate concerns for rapid economic growth with concerns to protect the environment. I do not see them as either or. They are not antithetical to each other. When I was in the MoEF, I followed a three-fold approach: “yes”, “yes-but” and “no”. About 75 per cent got a “yes”, about 20 per cent got a “yes-but” and about five per cent got a “no”.

Should the government come up with an overarching land use policy based on which the States can formulate their own land use policies and allow acquisition only on that basis. This would take care of apprehensions about depleting natural resources and help prioritise development goals and needs.

We have had land use policies, land use commissions, land use boards, but land is a State subject. The best I can do is to issue advisories to the State governments on what is the best way to plan for land use. Those advisories are ready. It is up to them to follow them or not. I do not have the legal authority. I wish I had the powers to issue fatwas to States ordering that this is the way they should use de-notified land that had been allotted to an SEZ [special economic zone] that did not come up. The Central government has tried repeatedly. There was a Land Use Planning Board; that is now defunct. All that the Centre can say on land use is exhortation and motherhood and apple pie.

Your Ministry came up with a National Land Reforms Policy, which laid down the guidelines for a land use plan. Why did it fail to take off?

They are only guidelines. A National Land Reforms Policy can only be a statement of intent, a statement of aspiration and a statement of direction. Land reform is a State subject. Operation Barga came about because of Hare Krishna Konar, Benoy Choudhury, Debu Bandopadhyay and Promode Dasgupta. It did not come because of the Central government. The Land Reforms Policy is a direction for States. If the State government does not follow it, there is little that the Central government can do about it. I have circulated this policy to all Chief Ministers. It has been there in the public domain for the past five months. I have received a lot of comments. There was opposition from many State governments about the ceiling. Many of them did not like the way it was drafted. We can have a policy as a statement of intent, like, for instance, the National Health Policy. There is no operational meaning to it.

Do you think there is a need for a more coherent approach among various Ministries in dealing with scarce resources and issues concerning the environment?

I agree that we need an integrated approach but that is easier said than done. Each Ministry is an empire in itself and likes to zealously guard its empire. I am also the Minister for the Department of Land Resources [DoLR]. We look at wastelands. Once upon a time, it was under the MoEF. Now rain-fed areas should logically come under the DoLR but it is under the Planning Commission. I agree we need a more integrated approach in dealing with the productivity of land and water. The same problem is being sliced and looked at with an integrated view. This is the job of the Planning Commission and it is precisely in the areas of land and water that the Planning Commission is going to be called upon to have this integrated approach.

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