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'We pay lip service to environment protection'

July 05, 2009 19:07 IST

The conflict between development and environment should not cause unnecessary delays, says Union Environment and Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh.

Over the last five years, the Environment Ministry was seen as being on the defensive on actions that were projected as harming the environment. How can you change that?

I am aiming at transparency and working within the framework of the law, yet within a time limit, rather than making the conflict between development and environment cause unnecessary delays.

Since I have taken charge, I have sent back 10 to 12 proposals which required diversion of about 1,000 hectares of land in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh for review. These were highway and railway projects, and of course the Navi Mumbai airport project, which would have meant removal of mangroves.

I have written to the chief ministers in all these cases. I have written to the Karnataka chief minister about projects in the western ghats, which is a very eco-sensitive place. About 1,900 acres of dense forests are being cut for a 400 Mw hydel project. I have said this can't be done.

All rejected proposals come back and get accepted in due course.

I am not a policeman. I can only work within the framework of two laws, The Environment Protection Act and the Forest Conservation Act. I have to implement these. I can do it like TN Seshan, who was once the environment secretary, or I can let everything pass.

I'm like an umpire. I will not favour either individuals or non governmental organisations. I will weigh issues for their merits. For instance, when NGOs opposed something, I did not bother because what was going to come up in the area was a school. But I put my foot down when I found that the Jabalpur-Nagpur six-lane highway would divide the tiger corridor. If we don't take a stand, all is gone. But I am helpless if decisions are taken at the political level.

What about foundation stones being laid before environmental clearances are given? Views of the people at public hearings don't influence the decision of the ministry.

There is all that. We can only try to change this. There is an attempt to get a new independent regulator. We are trying to see if independent bodies should conduct public hearings.

What is your priority now?

Cleaning of rivers and lakes. For 20 years, the Ganga Action Plan has spent Rs 1,200 crore. People can ask what happened. Most of the funds went into setting up sewage treatment plants, most of which are lying idle as the municipalities don't have the money to pay electricity bills.

How can the rivers be cleaned?

We need a new approach. We spend Rs 350 crore annually and distribute it among 164 towns. Each town gets a small amount and nothing gets done. Instead of looking at it from a town perspective, let us look at it from a river perspective.

Is there a model for this?

The Rhine was the dirtiest river 25 years ago, but today, six countries draw water from it for drinking.The Ganga basin authority, chaired by the prime minister, is a priority with the government.  It has five chief ministers as members and we are expecting something for it in the Budget.

What about lakes?
I visited the Wular recently. There is no lake there. Only 2 million willow trees. I will have to uproot these to revive the lake. As for Dal lake, all you need to do is watch a 1960s Hindi film and visit the lake now to gauge the work ahead of me.

What is your strategy for afforestation?

Our green cover is 23 per cent of our total area and we want to increase it to 33 per cent. We manage to increase it by eight to nine hectare annually. To get green cover in a third of the country, we need to add 2.5 million hectare per year. We will start the Green India programme soon.

Plantations won't get you the bio-diversity that forests have. It would also encourage logging of more forests.

There is no substitute for forest cover. Compensatory forestry programme will give priority to regeneration of existing forests. Cutting forests and replacing them with eucalyptus plantations is no option. There is a difference in how we view forests. In the 1970s and 1980s, forests were seen as a source of revenue. But today, we see them as absorbing carbon, a source of rainfall. There is a proposal to amend the Indian Forest Act, 1927, to change the whole perspective about forests.

You have been talking about changing gross domestic product to green domestic product. How will you do that?

Your GDP growth might be 9 per cent but how you used your natural resources might get you a score of 5 per cent or even less. Our policies should be such that they are not a drain on forest resources.

You recently openly disagreed with Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal on scrapping of board exams and bringing in the Foreign Universities Bill.

I never said that. But I have always maintained that I am opposed to the Foreign Universities Bill. It will finish Indian universities while we will never get the best foreign universities here. And nor will it stop Indian students from studying abroad.

In the last three years, you had the ministry fighting on the side of industry against the tribals in Niyamagiri in Orissa. Why is the ministry not insisting on alternative sites, even when they are pointed out?

In India, 250 million people live in forests and depend on forests for their livelihood. Hence, bio-conservation of the western ghats and the north-eastern regions is very important. What is Project Tiger about? All 37 tiger parks are in areas rich in bio-diversity. They cover 6 per cent of our forest area. If we protect them, we achieve a lot more than protecting tigers. Two weeks ago, I went to Corbett and I was so angry when told that there was once a proposal to locate Uttarakhand's capital
there. That would have finished it off much earlier. Tiger is only a symbol of bio-diversity.

Yet, do you have means to stop such intrusions, especially mining?

The truth is that we pay lip service to environment protection. There is only one example when a political person decided to give importance to environment over industrial development. That was Indira Gandhi 25 years ago, when she stopped the Silent Valley project, which could have finished off the rich rain forests. We must learn to say no. Unless governments
take a firm position, we will keep making compromises.

As power minister, you were allowing power projects in forests and now you are learning to say no.

If I say there is no contradiction, I would be lying. We must make choices. Al Baruni, who came here with Mohammad Gazni, spoke of Hindus as people who cannot choose. If given two options, they would take both, he said. One has to take a clear stand.

What about the hydel projects in Arunachal, the Renuka dam in Himachal, and several dams on the Teesta in Sikkim. We don't seem to be ready for compromises when it comes to energy.

That is horrible. I am talking to them. If I say no to one dam, others will get a signal.

The chairman of the Environment Impact Assessment Committee was found to be on the board of several power companies.

He has quit. Other committees are also being revamped. The chairman was on the board of Lanco, which got many projects in Sikkim.

Can these projects be reversed now?
Let us see.

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Sreelatha Menon