Piloting the train to ruin

Published: Monday 31 March 1997

DEVE GOWDA's anti-environment measures never seem to come to an end. Before becoming the Prime Minister (PM), Deve Gowda had said in an interview to Down To Earth (DTE): "Often people are being misted by environmentalists who tend to be anti-development .....". The PM's statement at the meeting of state power ministers on October 16, 1996, said: "Some people think that they are born only to protect the environment in this country and that God has sent them to this earth only to protect the environment." The Gowda government had also nominated N R Krishnan - a former secretary in the ministry of environment and forests (MEF) who has a dubious record as far as protecting the environment goes - for the post of executive director of the United Nation's Environment Programme. The most damaging move so far is the proposal for a draft bill that will severely restrict the use of public interest litigations (PIL) and thus allow the government to go scot free after destroying the environment and, consequently, our future. Fortunately, this has been shelved following immense pressure from the public and the judiciary.

With so many thoughtless measures having been taken, making Saifuddin Soz of the National Conference (NC) the Union minister for environment and forests and giving Jai Narain Prasad Nishad the not-so-coveted post of minister of state for non-conventional energy sources should not come as a surprise. Soz is a close confidant of NC leader and Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abduflah. On January 19, speaking at a function in Jalandhar, the chief minister had said: "We have poles and wires but no power and the Supreme Court has forbidden us from cutting forests. So if the Kashmiris talk of not staying with India, are they to be blamed?" In the absence of positive suggestions on how to manage the country's forests, the chief minister obviously advocates activities that will harm the environment. And, by giving Soz the Cabinet berth in the MEF, Gowda has endorsed such a stand.

Soz, on his part, is not letting down his mentor. Parroting Abdullah, he has said that the Supreme Court's ban on felling trees was causing hardship to the people and the matter had been taken up with the PM. If Gowda remains true to form, he will definitely pressurise the judiciary to effect a change in the situation. No doubt, Soz is simultaneously making some right noises by promising to work hard to ensure that development and environment are not seen as adversaries. But making such statements with no intention of following them up with action has become the fashion among politicians and cannot be taken as an indication of good intentions. This is all the more so in view of Soz's comment on the ban on tree felling. It is, of course, too early to make any comment on Soz's performance as an environment minister but he will have to be closely watched by the environmental community.

On the other hand, during Nishad's tenure as environment minister public hearings were proposed before environmental clearance is given to any industrial project or activity, both private and government. Though there are many loopholes in the Cabinet decision, it was a step in the right direction as it aimed to make industry more accountable to the people. It was also during his tenure that the MEF drafted a set of terms and conditions that gave the Centre the authority to regulate access to the country's genetic resources, after sitting on it for five years.

What then was the rationale behind replacing Nishad with Soz? The answer is political expediency. Political decisions are not taken with people's interest in mind. When Nishad was made the MEF minister, Lady Luck was smiling on his mentor, Janata Dal (JD) leader, Laloo Prasad Yadav. But the JD leader's influence is reportedly diminishing. Abdullah's fortunes, on the other hand, seem to be bright. After winning the Jammu and Kashmir elections, the NC has emerged as an important constituent of the UF government. And, obviously, Soz had to be given a Cabinet berth. Interestingly, nobody in the In raised a hue and cry, least of all Nishad. In leader Sharad Yadav even said: "Bhai, accommodate to karna hi Parta hai (One has to accommodate people)." But is the move a good display of the government's commitment to dealing with environmental problems? Soz could have been given any ministry. It is hardly six months since Nishad was sworn in as the environment and forests minister. Is the MEF so unimportant that ministerial changes can be made so rapidly? By relegating the ministry to the back-benches, the government just shows its lack of concern for or knowledge of environmental issues. Deve Gowda just keeps talking about the uplift of the poor, but does not seem to understand the relationship they have with the environment. Gowda, who had said of PILs, "Whether it is PIL or political interest litigation I do not know...", seems to be turning the ministry of (natural) environment into a ministry of (political) environment. Besides, it is doubtful whether either Abdullah or Soz are happy with the move. Soz reportedly had expected the external affairs portfolio. So what will be his commitment to the lowly portfolio of environment?

In his speech on January 19, Abdullah had said that Pakistan was on a fast track to ruin. The same is true of the environment ministry and, consequently, the environment and our future.

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