Environment and development must go hand in hand. Who can disagree with this? But what is good in theory becomes contentious in practice. Sometimes a project will receive a "yes" from the ministry of environment and forests (MoE&F). Sometimes, the response will be a "yes, but" with safeguards being stipulated for the project to proceed indeed the large majority of the projects receive one of these responses. But there will be occasions when a definitive "no" will have to be said.
Over three decades ago, Indira Gandhi, unarguably the greatest environmentalist we have had in our political class, was loud and clear on Silent Valley. But thereafter such instances have been few and far between. With India now on a high economic growth trajectory and with the need to ensure that we stay on that path, safeguards, conditions and even Silent Valley-type trade-offs are coming into increasing prominence. No longer can we take solace in what S Radhakrishnan had once pithily summarised as the essence of our culture: "Why look at things in terms of this or that? Why not try to have both this and that".
How do we address such situations where deliberate and difficult choices are imperative? While i believe that no generalisation is possible since each case of environmental or biodiversity impact is sui generis, certain principles and guidelines can certainly be adopted.
First, we need to move to rules-based approaches and rely less on discretion-based decision-making. A good example of this is what has been initiated for identifying the prima facie "go/no-go" areas for coal mining. Nine major coalfields have been analysed and digitised maps showing their overlap with forest areas have been put in the public domain. The exercise is aimed to facilitate rules-based, transparent and objective granting of forestry clearance to coal blocks based on a "go/no-go" concept in the future. This exercise is being extended to other coalfields and other mineral sectors, particularly iron ore.
Second, we need massive institutional strengthening of the entire environmental governance system. Parliament has passed the National Green Tribunal Bill recently. This will function as a dedicated and specialised environmental court system accessible to all citizens. A national environmental protection authority to strengthen field-level monitoring and compliance capabilities is on the anvil as is the technical and organisational strengthening of the Central Pollution Control Board and its counterparts in states. In the MoE&F itself, steps have been taken to clean up internal processes, whether they relate to the composition of the environmental clearance committees or the process of decision-making or strengthening the scientific capacity of the ministry.
Third, we need to embrace proactive transparency in a major way going well beyond what is required under the RTI. All information from within the MoE&F policies, new proposals, monitoring reports, impact assessment is today put on the website almost immediately. Directions have also been issued to ensure that local elected bodies and local civil society groups have the information they are entitled to as a matter of right and not as a favour being done to them. The public is our best monitoring mechanism keeping us accountable to our targets and ensuring enforcement and compliance at the grassroots, where we are weak. Such actions greatly strengthen the hand of the public in its monitoring function.
Fourth, the trade-offs, wherever they arise, must be made explicit and a larger consensus created on the best way to move ahead. In deciding on the future course of action on Bt-brinjal, for instance, we followed this approach laboriously, having a series of large, inclusive public and expert consultations before announcing a decision on its commercialisation. The entire set of facts, opinions, communications, proceedings, etc, related to the decision was made public. The decision has received both bouquets and brickbats but that is inevitable.
Fifth, we have to think of innovative financial mechanisms that marry the imperatives of growth with that of ecological security. In 2002, we made a great start when the Supreme Court intervened and directed the constitution of a Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). CAMPA is a 'vehicle' created to encourage reforestation, by asking project proponents to deposit with the government a certain amount equivalent to the social and economic value of the forest land being diverted for the project. A total amount of Rs 11,000 crore has been collected in this manner over the past seven years.
A more recent, but equally important example of a similar innovation is of the national clean energy fund announced by the finance minister in his Budget speech this year. The underlying proposal is to levy a clean energy cess on coal, at a rate of Rs 50 per tonne. This money will be used for funding research and innovative projects in clean energy technologies and also for environmental management of critically polluted areas.
In an address at the national conference of ministers of environment and forests in New Delhi last August, the prime minister had rightly observed: "We are still at early stages of industrialisation and urbanisation...We can and we must walk a different road, an environment-friendly road." We must persevere on this road in spite of the opposition it is bound to generate only then will high growth also be sustainable and inclusive growth.
The writer is Union minister of state for environment and forests.