Call the monitor

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

imageIn Goa mines are closed. In Bellary, iron ore mines, once closed, have been opened on the condition that they will now follow a plan for environmental restoration and will not indulge in unseemly and distasteful activities. But the institutions for checking the reformed miners are still in disarray. They cannot monitor and enforce the rules. So, believe it or not, little will actually change in the Bellary landscape. The miners will flex muscles again (after a suitable wait) to extract more iron ore than they should; degrade the land and water; encroach on forestland; and cheat the exchequer by hiding the value of their exports. They did this once. They will do it again.

So are environmentalists to blame for the current economic crisis? Or is it that the rapid growth of the past few years is far beyond the capacity and ability of regulatory institutions to manage? If we don’t fix this, then let’s be clear, growth will happen again but will collapse faster than yesterday. It is not the environment that is to be blamed. It is the government.

The iron ore mines in Goa were closed after a government-instituted commission of enquiry charged the state with connivance in illegal mining. First the state government, then the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and then the Supreme Court stepped in to close the mines. Now nobody knows how to reopen them as fast as they would like.

But open they will. And they must, given the fact that we need minerals. And nobody can say that extraction cannot happen in their backyard. The question is: how will Goa restart its mining operations so that the overburden is not dumped in forests and agricultural fields and does not destroy streams and livelihoods? How will it build infrastructure to transport the minerals without causing pollution and hazards? How will it contain the mining activity so that its cumulative impact is not unsustainable? In short, how will it mine so that there is a tomorrow?

It can do this only if there are working institutions that can be trusted to take carefully evaluated decisions. More importantly, the institutions should be able to enforce the conditions laid down at the time of clearance so that devastation is mitigated, if not managed well.

But we don’t have such institutions. Instead, there is a growing noise that environment and forest clearances are holding up growth. So, there is a frantic rush to clear everything in sight. But will this repair the economy? The fact is that clearances have never been the problem. In the past five years, MoEF has granted sanctions to so many thermal power stations, cement plants and iron-ore and coal mines that we should have doubled or tripled the capacity in most cases. But we have not because there are other unresolved issues—from finance to building projects against the will of communities.

If we are serious about doing something then this is where we should focus. First, we should invest in institutions that will provide oversight. This means doing what we mostly avoid—repair what is broken. Pollution control boards remain under-staffed, under-funded and abused by all. But we build new agencies, deluding ourselves that they will take care of all the troubles. The National Green Tribunal has been set up. Now this tribunal needs scientific information, monitoring data and assessment. It has nobody to call upon but the same defunct pollution control boards, so decision-making is seriously impaired. It is a joke.

Secondly, we should set straight the system of clearances. Currently, the entire structure is built on a few committees, manned (since there are very few women) by faceless and mostly retired bureaucrats and other sundry types. The institution is unaccountable. It is supposed to “assess” projects—spending on an average a few minutes on each file—and then take decisions. If the call is tough it will ask many questions of the project proponent. If the project is disputed and in the public gaze, it will ask even more questions and hold many more meetings. Finally, it will clear all the projects but with tough environmental conditions. This, when it knows that there is no monitoring mechanism to check even one of the 100 conditions it imposes.

This is what needs to be reformed, revamped and seriously improved. This will require taking tough positions on strengthening the existing system—bringing in more specialists and streamlining processes so that environment, forests, wildlife and coastal clearances are all brought together and assessed for cumulative impact. Most importantly, there have to be people to monitor post-clearance performance so that we can get development right and the environment safeguarded. We need to tighten enforcement. And we cannot do this without strong regulatory institutions.

But this is the music nobody wants to hear. The cacophony, “growth is dead, long live growth”, works best. It hides the real game that is afoot: the great Indian sale.

Forest and Environment Clearances: Problems for economic growth or problems for environmental protection

Status of environment & forests clearances in various sectors

Reconstitution of EAC in the Industry Sector for Environmental Impact Assessment of projects requiring environmental clearance under EIA Notification, 2006

Supreme Court order dated 28/09/2012 regarding mining leases in Karnataka

Interim report by CEC on illegal mining in Goa

Amendment to environment clearance order (11 June, 2010)

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  • There are always two faces of

    There are always two faces of a coin. As strong institution is needed to check the pilferage similarly growth is also required. Why? If mines are operating then the labour are paid, related institutions also get service providing opportunities thus providing valuable livelihood to many people directly or indirectly. Also in case of pollution monitoring 3rd party organizations will get their change to provide this service thus they will make a profit on the job, a part of which is expected to be invested back to buy more sophisticated instruments and train people in identifying pollutants and their way of mitigation. Halting the total mining operation thus put a stop on this growth. And when mining is carried out strong regulatory organizations are required to see the process is carried out efficiently and effectively.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • I totally agree with this

    I totally agree with this article.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Your editorial is timely and

    Your editorial is timely and to the point. There is a general impression among people who are not well informed that environmentalists are creating obstacles in the path of development. I have experienced that even educated persons blame the environmentalists for almost all the ills in the economy. The fact is that they are not informed about the ground situation. I shall like to highlight few issues. There is always a clamour among the bureaucrats to get postings in few selected Ministries, MoEF is one. People go to the extent of influencing those who matter, through top politicians. Reasons are many. They get opportunities to oblige people ones they are in the MoEF. Also, they make huge money by way of foreign trips. Then they carry their family members on those trips, free. Divisions which have foreign trips are rarely manned at the top by any one else than the bureaucrats. In fact at one time there was a joke about a Joint Secretary in the Ministry that he rarely visited his residence after a foreign trip. He used to land on the airport where another suitcase was ready for him to take the next flight for another meeting. Certainly there was some exaggeration in that. But the situation was not very different.
    As far as the Pollution Control Boards are concerned, almost all senior appointments are made on political considerations. There have been innumerable instances that deserving candidates were ignored to favour those well connected. Also, the Pollution Control Boards are dens of corruption. People at important positions make huge amount of money for favouring and also for disfavouring certain 'proposals'.
    As far as the Committees are concerned, they are simply meant to favour retired bureaucrats or few so called experts who will not oppose those in position.

    The issues are so many. But no one is interested in taking note.
    Thanks for your continued efforts. May be some result will be there.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Agree with the observations

    Agree with the observations of Mr Haque.

    We have been saying over and over again that, especially in regulatory bodies and departments, postings and transfers should NOT be in the hands of politicians alone. There is a need for fixed tenures of at least three years. Bringing in more experts, scientists etc. will not work unless this transfer/posting racket is taken care of, particularly at the state level under whom most regulatory bodies function.

    Institutions are better managed by letting them do their job. Importantly putting the right person in the right place is the difficult but not insurmountable part. Why don't we concentrate on that?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • It is, as has always been, a

    It is, as has always been, a pleasure to read Sunita Narain's piece on the broad theme of sustainable development and the sectoral specifics therein including the related institutional issues! While the misgivings/blame game about the delayed projects are well brought out, it is not just a question of having regulatory institutions in place, but also their effectiveness. There is a lot to be desired in terms of their independence, specialized knowledge and skill-sets. Besides the fact they tend to be parking slots for some retired bureaucrats, most of the support team/staff seem to have come on lien from organizations that have nothing to do with the regulatory role or the concerned sector. No wonder, they do some hurried analyses based on other countries' experience and come up with some quick fix recommendations without contextualizing to our own situations at home. In fact, in a recent panel discussion on TV, a senior bureaucrat retorted angrily saying who else would the govt. get for such peanuts and take crap from the govt. and answerable to politicians, media and the public.
    Yet, the attitude seems to be, the show must go on!

    Thanks and keep up the good work.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply