Don’t delay project clearances by repeatedly asking for different studies. That was Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave’s message to non-official expert members of the ministry’s appraisal committees. He urged them to work hard to clear the bulk of pending processes over the next three months.
Around 40 expert members from all over the country were invited to an “interaction and lunch” which was followed by a closed-door meeting with the minister at the ministry headquarters on January 5.
In his 45-minute address — according to two expert members present at the meeting — the minister spoke of the vision and contribution of his party and the government while charting the course they should follow while appraising project proposals. Key directions included:
* Ensure zero-corruption in the appraisal process.
* Clear projects fast. Don’t hold back development.
* Don’t compromise on ease of doing business, the key goal of the government.
* Work as a team towards that goal or resign right away.
* Be wary of NGOs funded by foreign interests that don’t want India to develop.
Reached for comments, Dave told The Indian Express he wanted non-official expert members to be more active in ensuring that environmental protection and development go hand in hand.
“They should always put their opinion on record. But we can’t sit on projects for years and keep asking for XYZ studies. Yeh nahin chalega (this won’t do). The culture of delay must change. Genuine projects must be cleared within a fixed deadline,” he said.
In its first two years, the Narendra Modi government cleared over 2,000 projects involving investment worth Rs 10 lakh crore. In May 2016, Dave’s predecessor Prakash Javadekar had said that the average waiting period for project approval had been brought down to 190 days from 600 days during the UPA regime and the aim now was to reduce it further to 100 days.
At the January 5 meeting, Dave raised several questions to make his point. “He asked if we should bother about cutting trees when soldiers were dying on the border. Or about putting speed breakers on highways to save animals when CRPF jawans were getting injured in blasts in Chhattisgarh. He talked about activists who sip bottled water while lecturing on rivers while villagers go without water for 250-300 days a year,” said an expert member present at the meeting.
Another expert member said: “We are in these committees as subject experts to offer our independent opinion on technical issues. We are scientists, not rubber stamps. Also, I don’t think it was an occasion for the minister to talk about his party. We don’t need to prove our patriotism by blindly clearing projects,” he said.
Asked if he served an ultimatum, Dave said he was “probably misunderstood” by some of the expert members. “I spoke about strategic projects like border roads that take supplies to our forces. I stressed on zero-tolerance to corruption, particularly in the wake of demonetisation. I did not ask anyone to resign. I said mann pe bojh rakh ke kaam mat kijiye (don’t work with a burden on your mind),” he said.
Before Dave made his speech, the ministry held a brief presentation and listed the number of projects cleared by different expert committees in the past to evaluate their performance. The minister’s speech was followed by an appeal by Environment Secretary Ajay Narayan Jha, urging experts to come up with suggestions for speeding up the clearance process.