Air of uncertainty

Print edition : June 27, 2014

Searching for coins and gold in the polluted waters of the Ganga at Sangam after the Kumbh Mela festival, in Allahabad on April 2, 2013. It has been reported that the NDA government's initial plans for the Ganga include cleaning the river, incorporating flood control, strengthening transport, and generating tourism and employment. Photo: SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP

Prakash Javadekar takes charge as the Minister of State for Environment and Forests with independent charge on May 29. Photo: Subhav Shukla/PTI

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar will not have to worry about pressures from alliance partners. But one does not know how much space he is willing to carve out for himself and how much space the government is likely to give him.

THERE are three questions that environment watchers ask when a new government is sworn in: who is the Environment Minister; is it a Cabinet or a Minister of State position; and is Environment combined with another portfolio? While the answer to the first question reveals the profile of the individual, the answers to the other two reveal the priorities of the government.

After Prakash Javadekar was named for the position, it was clear that a Minister of State (independent charge) would head the Environment Ministry and that it would be in addition to the Information and Broadcasting portfolio. He would also assist with the Parliamentary Affairs portfolio. Javadekar is a Rajya Sabha member from Maharashtra who had been a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson during these elections.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the BJP has added a sub-portfolio of Climate Change to the traditional Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and created another portfolio that relates to the role of keeping the Ganga clean. Uma Bharati, accommodated with a Cabinet position, will handle the portfolio of Water Resources and the Ganga. Keeping the Ganga clean, like any other river in the country, was a function the MoEF traditionally handled.

The Ganga has both an emotional and a practical appeal for the BJP. While filing his nomination from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Modi said that Mother Ganga had called him. “I feel like a child who has returned to his mother’s lap,” he had stated. Rhetoric aside, the seats that assured the BJP a majority in Parliament came from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the States through which the Ganga flows. While Uttar Pradesh elected 71 BJP parliamentarians, Bihar elected 22, and with alliance partners these numbers increase to 73 and 31 respectively. Thus, a separate Ministry focussing on the health and rejuvenation of the Ganga is both a thanksgiving and an investment for the BJP.

It has been reported that the NDA government’s initial plans for the Ganga include cleaning the river, incorporating flood control, strengthening transport, and generating tourism and employment. Cleaning the Ganga can have strong environmental and economic dividends as the riverine system runs through the most populated part of the country and supports its food basket. Although there has been sporadic focus on the Ganga from the time of the 1984-89 Rajiv Gandhi government, it has not resulted in a visible positive impact on the health of the river. The BJP used the symbolism of regaining the purity of Mother Ganga in its manifesto and stated that it “commits to ensure the cleanliness, purity and uninterrupted flow of the Ganga on priority”.

There is one benefit that Javadekar will have over his predecessors from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments. He does not need to worry about pressures from alliance partners on the workings of the Ministry. The UPA’s Environment Ministers had to face competing pulls from alliance partners and also from within the Congress party. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s interests were more pro-development than Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s when it came to environmental clearance for projects. Considering that some of the counterbalancing regional forces that had become the hallmark of Indian polity since 1991 have become marginalised in the new Parliament, Javadekar will need to ensure that the decisions of his Ministry do not pull heavily in either of the two directions. The test will be even more difficult since the BJP’s electoral positioning and reading of the mandate are weighted more towards development.

The BJP, in its manifesto, promises thus: “Our attempt will be to move towards a single-window system of clearances both at the Centre and the States through a hub-spoke model.” The Centre and the States will work in coordination to give clearances to mega projects. “Decision-making on environment clearances will be made transparent as well as time-bound.” The government will “frame the environment laws in a manner that provides no scope for confusion and will lead to speedy clearance of proposals without delay”.

The play of words is interesting. The single window of the BJP is similar to the idea of the National Environmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority articulated in the Congress manifesto. But at least the Congress believed in creating a body to specifically look into environmental issues, whereas the single window envisaged by the BJP is to give clearances for projects and not necessarily to look at the environmental issues. Further, even the environment laws can be rewritten to avoid confusion and lead to speedy clearance.

The image that Modi brings from Gandhinagar to New Delhi is of a corporate-friendly head of government. Conspicuous by their presence during the Prime Minister’s swearing-in were the captains of industry from his State, such as Mukesh and Anil Ambani and Gautam Adani.

The Environment Minister will need to convincingly ensure that corporate interests do not override other interests and concerns. This is especially so since in February 2013 Javadekar reportedly likened the UPA government’s record on environmental clearance for projects to “roadblocks” that were akin to the return of the “licence raj”. More recently, in his maiden press conference after taking over as the Environment Minister, Javadekar said that timelines would be set for environmental clearances and that there would be a continuous effort to hasten the process.

In these early days of the Modi government, when the machinery is only starting to roll, the indication of what environmental actions it will take can only come from the manifesto. The BJP manifesto was far more articulate about its goals than the one published by the Congress. It promises to take the idea of sustainability and climate change mitigation initiatives seriously and work with the global community. The government is expected to encourage cleaner production; promote cleaner fuel; launch an integrated public transport project; promote a proactive carbon credit system; conduct ecological audits of projects and pollution indexing of urban centres; use wastelands for social forestry; produce guidelines for the construction of green buildings; promote human capacity-building in environmental technologies; establish foolproof mechanisms for the protection and preservation of wildlife; and encourage and incentivise innovative garbage-management practices.

There is mention of a National Mission on the Himalayas and the creation of a Himalayan Sustainability Fund, and also of national policies on critical natural resources like coal and minerals, which would spell out how much would be utilised in what time and pace.

The government is likely to take a conservative view of some controversial issues. The manifesto states that cultural values and thorium reserves will be considered before taking a decision on the Sethusamudram project in the Palk Strait. Similarly, genetically modified foods will not be allowed without a full scientific evaluation on their long-term effects on soil and production and their biological impact on consumers.

All these objectives are basically fine print within the BJP’s broader ambition of giving “the taste of a developed country to this very generation” where the need is for “a quantum jump and a total change”. There is an imagination of the grandeur of an India of the past and an urgency to create it again.

It is obvious that this self-image will be the guiding force of the BJP-led government’s actions in the coming months and years and will also determine the way it will engage with multiple stakeholders during environmental disputes. It is not as if the UPA did not have its share of environmental controversies where the government’s interests came into conflict with those of local communities. But in the UPA’s dominant narrative, there was some space for reaching out to the people. This was visible in the series of rights-based legislation that the UPA government piloted, such as the laws on relief and rehabilitation during land acquisition, employment guarantee, forests rights and food security. It will need to be seen whether the BJP’s blueprint on development will offer such space for those whose interests are in conflict with those of the government.

Javadekar has work to do on the climate change front. Although the Indian government has been taking a position against accepting legally binding emission reduction targets at international meetings since 1992, the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) was unveiled as late as 2008. The workings of the eight national missions launched under the NAPCC require strengthening. Further, the process initiated to develop a low-carbon and inclusive growth strategy through the Kirit Parikh Committee needs to be taken to its logical conclusion in collaboration with the other relevant Ministries.

Internationally, Javadekar will have to lead the Indian delegation in the climate change negotiations to develop a post-Kyoto Protocol emission reduction instrument. He will have the responsibility of proving to the world that India is serious about reducing emissions even while avoiding legally binding targets.

Javadekar is known to have been an active member in delegations that have attended some of the international environmental meetings. Now he will lead these delegations. There is much he can do within and outside the country to strengthen the effectiveness of the MoEF and make it a body that innovatively engages to protect the interests of development and conservation. The coming months will show how much space he is willing to carve out for himself and how much space the government is likely to give him.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier is regional environment manager with Panos South Asia. The views expressed are personal.

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