The states see red

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

TILL the other day, the Rajasthan chief minister, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, seemed to spend much of his time frozen on an anti-environmentalist platform, ranting against the Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF). Last fortnight, he seemed to have passed the megaphone to Orissa's Biju Patnaik. That both these stormy petrels are so shrill against green concerns is a sure sign that environmenmtal issues are steadily adding to the prickliness of the thorny Centre-states relations in India.

The ire of both the chief ministers has been primarily aroused by worry that some of their most important development plans may lose their promise of jobs and revenue to environmental riders that the Centre is insistent on attaching to them, often at the urging of local activists. Shekhawat had been angered by the opposition of local NGOs and the MEF to mining around the Sariska National Park in Alwar. As is evident in his fulminations in Bhubaneshwar in mid-November, Patnaik is similarly peeved, but over several matters.

High on his list is the continuing opposition by the MEF to the Orissa government's Rs 900 crore beach resort project on the Puri-Konark coast. The MEF has refused to grant environmental clearance to the project on grounds that it would damage the fragile coastline of the area as well as require the dereservation of the nearby Balukhand sanctuary. (Down To Earth, Vol II, No 16). More recently, the Union environment and finance ministries have refused to entertain Patnaik's plaint that his government cannot shoulder the state's share of the cost of depolluting the Brahmani river, necessary to solve the intense drinking water problems in the Dhenkanal district.

There is also the ongoing scrutiny of aquaculture projects in Bhitarkanika. Further, the Orissa government's dream of high revenues from similar projects in Chilika lake were dashed some time ago by the Centre's intrasigence. Each of these cases was accompanied by local environmental agitations, but it is the Centre that makes Patnaik see red.

Shekhawat and Patnaik are not isolated anti-green reactionists. There is like-minded dissent from other states, only muted in comparison. All of them claim eligibility for damages due to the 40-000-odd investment proposals awaiting environmental clearance by Delhi. All of them are dodging the thick tome of green guidelines the Centre is throwing at them.

Behind this discomfort, of course, is economic distress. All state governments are finding it extremely difficult to keep their development and growth plans chugging. Much of this is due to their own budgetary profligacy. But the Centre has contributed as well by reducing the states' share of various revenues shared between the 2 sides -- a drop of almost 20 per cent since 1991. Even as the states complain of deep budgetary blues, Delhi boasts of bliss. Foreign currency reserves have made it coffer-happy. Ironically enough, many of the foreign investment projects cleared by state governments demand enhanced exploitation of natural resources, which brings them up short before the environmental barriers set up by the Centre.

Not surprisingly, all fora for Centre-state interaction are battlegrounds for environmental matters. During the past 2 years, no session of the National Development Council has passed without one chief minister, or more, thundering purple on green issues. The angrier among them have even given vent to their feelings at gatherings of the National Integration Council or the National Security Council.

Members of Patnaik's cabinet never miss an opportunity to publicly point out that intensive aquaculture projects in Congress-ruled Andhra Pradesh have yet to be examined as closely as those in their state have been. In the same manner, the dubious clearance given last week by the MEF to the giant power project at Dabhol in Maharashtra has heightened the sense of being discriminated against in several state capitals. Little wonder that many of them endorse Patnaik's accusation that the Centre uses the environmental whip to keep the states in line.

Such clashes are the stuff of environment-development conflicts and cannot be run away from. But the Centre must look for mechanisms to make matters less vexatious for the states. There are ways of doing so: the states have to be helped with viable and politically-feasible alternatives; the Centre must act as an honest broker; and, above all, local democracy and decentralised planning should be encouraged. Only then will the states begin the long journey on the road to trusting the Centre.

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