Opting for a catastrophe

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

the P rime Minister's announcement on September 10, that all fast track power projects requiring less than Rs 1,000 crore investment will be henceforth cleared by state governments is a clear attempt to dilute the powers of the Centre in a sector which needs its attention the most. It is an example of bad governance principles because on any issue which involves conflicting interests -- the need for more power and yet the need to keep the environment clean -- the beneficiary should not be given the responsibility of handling both issues. It simply won't. Such measures will negate all necessary balance between development and the environment and in the long run, turn out to be suicidal.

Power is something that states want more and more. But in that craving, they tend to care little about the environment. The perfect example of this is none but the present Prime Minister ( pm ), H D Deve Gowda, who, during his tenure as Karnataka chief minister, had pushed through the Cogentrix project, despite voluble protests from environmentalists that this will ruin the Western Ghats' extremely species-rich but fragile ecosystem. This is a clear signal to industry that this regime cares two hoots about environment. In fact, during a recent conversation with two senior researchers from cse , the minister for environment, Jai Narain Nishad said that the pm is hell bent on mega power projects and that the ministry of environment and forests ( mef) can do little against his wishes.

Originally, the proposal had come to the mef from the ministry of energy (m o e ). But within a week after the mef said it was considering this, the pm announced that not only will this come through, but all necessary legislative measures will be also cleared to pave the way for this. What we are witnessing here is the fast demolition of the powers of the mef , which is the prime agency meant for protecting the people's environmental interests.

The mef is in any case a ministry without much tooth . As it is, the status of the incumbent is only that of a minister of state, and he cannot over-rule his senior colleagues if they wish to push a project at the Cabinet level. Besides, all matters that the mef deals with are inter-ministerial. The 1994 notification, making environmental impact assessments makes eia statutory for 29 sectors such as industries, irrigation, power transport tourism, etc, and each of these ministries are further linked with ministries of commerce, trade, finance and a myriad others. Therefore, it is the pm who finally decides on all contentious issues. Whether they are power projects, like Enron, or river water issues, like Cauvery, Alamatti or any other, they invariably need Prime Ministerial intervention. But in this instance, the pm 's intervention has only made the mef weaker.

The agencies to which the moe proposal seeks to hand over power -- the state electricity boards -- have proven to be some of the worst polluters and phenomenally bad managers of power generation and distribution. There are some who might defend this proposal merely on grounds that it seems to be devolving power to the states. But power goes hand-in-hand with of its counterpart: responsibility. The state agencies have to be made to feel responsible about the environment. But our experience with most state-level agencies (the state pollution control boards, for instance), is that they neither have the technical ability nor the political will to impose strict controls. Therefore, the new scheme of things means we inviting a catastrophe.

Arguments that power projects need to be cleared fast also cannot justify that the Centre giving up controls, the state-level scenario being what it is. What needs to be done is for the Centre to lay down clear principles and procedures of clearing power (or for that matter, any developmental) projects. These procedures need to be set up first at the Centre, and after a clear debate on what should be the trade-off between a project and its environmental fallouts. All power projects will negatively impact the environment, but the public must have a say on what is the price they are willing to pay for a particular project. For this, they need to be made aware of the environmental impact assessment reports of projects, which should be made available to the public on demand.

If speedier implementation of projects is what the government wants, it should also clearly set out guidelines for rigorous assessment protocols. First, these systems need to be set up at the Centre, tried out and perfected through a trial and error method. Once these are perfected, the states should be asked to set up similar stringent systems. And then alone they will be able to fulfill the dual role of setting up fast track projects and yet maintaining the balance between development and environment. But before anything else, the mef , which is already too weak from within, needs to be strengthened, not further shorn of its powers. Till then, all talk of federalism and devolution of power on this issue will remain a camouflage for pushing through projects at any cost.

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