"I did not have enough time"

Saifuddin Soz , looks back on his achievements and failures as the Union minister of environment and forests in an interview with Anumita Roychowdhury, Supriya Akerkar, Anju Sharma and Neena Singh

Published: Saturday 28 February 1998

On his achievements as environment minister:
I did not care for the fragility of the political system. Even in a caretaker government, I am doing what I can.

I have constituted a committee to advise the ministry on how minerals can be utilised in this country. At present, individual companies are coming to me for environmental clearance for mining in forests. Instead of grappling with individual files, we need a comprehensive map of areas where mining is possible. We also need to analyse how mining can be carried out scientifically and how to address the technological issues of mining in mineral-rich areas such as Bastar and Orissa. The question is whether we should exploit mineral resources. If so, how much, and how? We need a plan of action for the country. I intend to involve the top scientists in the country to give an objective opinion on the issue.

The National Appellate Authority on environment has started functioning.People can now go and appeal to the Appellate Authority if they have any objection to environmental clearance given by the ministry to any development project. This will make our work more transparent.

I am also working towards combating pollution in Delhi and in other parts of the country. I have recently issued a white paper on pollution in Delhi. Delhi will also have an environmental court, which will take shape before I leave. At the same time, magistrates in Delhi have been entrusted with more powers to penalise any violation of environmental regulations.

Many issues have drawn my attention, including biodiversity. I have set up a committee to look into the necessity for legislation on biodiversity. The committee has come up with an outline of the legislation. I was going to present a bill in Parliament.

I have also set up four committees to study how we can protect forests and the ways to improve the conditions of the tribals. Should tribals be the guardians of the area? We need to study how forests can be utilised without causing any damage.

We also need to assess our strategies on afforestation. There is a great deal of debate on how degraded forests can be used. Statistics indicate that forests cover about 23 per cent of India's land area. But real forest area is only 19 per cent, and the closed forest area is only 11 per cent.

I have also raised the issue of the need to amend the Forest Conservation Act to make it more comprehensive.

On captive use of forest land by the industry:
I am against captive plantations. I cannot blindly sanction transfer of forests land to the private sector. I am not convinced that the private sector will work in the interest of public welfare. The private sector's only interest is profits. It is the government which has to act in public interest.

If you are going to give a particular patch of land for industrial use, then what kind of system are you going to put in place to make the user of the land more accountable and responsible for its impact on environment? Would you comment in the context of the Sanghi Jetty case.
The Sanghi matter should not be discussed. But the decision I took on some cases will indicate my perspective on the matter. For instance, if you want a captive jetty, then I have a question: Why a captive jetty for one industry? The Union or the state government must construct a jetty for everybody. We need to be clear about the basic principle - do we need a captive jetty for one company or for 10 companies in an ecologically-fragile coastal line - jetty after jetty, particularly captive jetties?

In any region, if you decide to set up a plant, then determine the carrying capacity. You must have a long term policy that will take care of the long term ecological concerns.

Some of my decisions have helped in creating awareness. And they will be tested one day in the Supreme Court (sc). If the sc summons me and this should go on record, I will say exactly this... because I have understood the issue. I am not a scientist. But I will raise this larger question. Should a private individual have a right to raise a captive jetty? As an individual, I will oppose it. However, this is only my point of view. I am not talking about the Sanghis.

On how he intends to make polluters more accountable:
Polluters will have to pay through the nose. Let 24 magistrates in Delhi take cognisance of offences and book cases in the environment court. If it really happens, it will be a revolution for the whole country. If you get two people punished in a month, then the mindset of others will change.

The magistrates have large powers to tackle problems of municipal waste.

I would want them to take cognisance of hazardous waste and environmental offences, refer them to the environment court and get decisions. As of now, environmental offences are not booked.

I am not the one who says that judges indulge in judicial activism. People go to the courts as the last resort, in the absence of executive action.

There are clashes between people and environment managers everywhere in the country - whether in forests or in wildlife areas. Would you say that giving powers to the local people will promote conservation?
The state government should certainly have more powers to deal with the local problems. For instance, the state government can give clearance up to five hectares for diversion of forest land for other purposes.

But shouldn't the people at the grassroot level be given more powers to manage their resources and resolve local problems?
The forests are under pressure because of the increase in population and also due to the ever increasing urban demand. And so I don't think giving powers to the local people is the only answer.

On India's weak negotiating position and India's inability to lobby effectively with the other developing countries to develop a common position in the Kyoto Conference:
It will be wrong to say that we were weak negotiators in Kyoto. In fact, we quite successfully countered the move by the developed countries on emissions trading on the grounds that we cannot accept such a proposition without adequate safeguards. India and China came together in areas of common concern. The issues that interest developing countries are technology transfer and funding commitments by the developed countries. Nothing has been done to meet them.

Should Parliament ratify the international environmental treaties?
It is true that trade treaties attract more attention from the government. But before discussing it in Parliament it is important to educate the members on environmental treaties.

On support from bureaucracy:
Sometimes I have had disagreements with them. But I have also maintained good working relations. Bureau-crats advise, but I have always exercised my discretion. However, I have involved other people and non-governmental organisations (ngos) in the discussions over important issues. There is much that a minister can do provided there is a will. And I have involved a wider set of people.

What were your shortcomings as environment minister?
I have not failed. But I did not have enough time to tackle all the problems. There is no quitting for me as a public figure. It is important to understand that fragile ecology weakens development.

Has there been any major change in your perception of the environment after you took over as minister?
I am much more knowledgeable about environmental issues today. I took interest in the issues and got an opportunity to meet many environmentalists and ngos working in different areas. I cannot say that I am an expert today, but it will not be easy for people to mislead me. And if I am given a chance to exercise my option again, then I would opt for ministry of environment and forests.

In the forthcoming elections, would you be able to place a green agenda in your constituency? How will Baramullah, your constituency respond, for example?
My people are with me. Besides environmental concerns, they also have many other problems. They have gone through hell.

Would green agenda as a political or electoral issue excite people?
I do not think it will be possible in individual constituencies. But for parties, let me tell you that the United Front manifesto has a section on environment. The Prime Minister in his speech on August 15 at the Lal Quila talked about biodiversity and pollution. It was not for nothing.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.