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Will try (to conserve) but can’t allow something crazy, says Prakash Javadekar

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar talks about speedier green clearance and the balance with growth in this interview to Jay Mazoomdaar

Written by Jay Mazoomdaar |
Updated: August 3, 2015 5:22:47 am
Prakash Javadekar, green clearance, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, environmental clearances, environmental damages, industry environmental clearance, afforestation, tiger conservation, environmental pollution, bjp government, india news, nation news We don’t give forestland when there are alternatives. But projects such as mines are site-specific and have to be allowed while ensuring sustainable environment practices, said Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar.

The Prime Minister’s Office has been all praise for Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar for speeding up the green clearance process. At the same time, a section of experts and activists have accused him of consistently undermining environmental concerns to facilitate growth. Last week, Javadekar made headlines by asking his ministry officials to replace the word “diversion” (of forestland) with “reforestation”. In an interview over two sessions at his office and home, he defends the directive and discusses a range of sensitive issues.

As India celebrates rising tiger numbers this International Tiger Day, how does the government plan to tackle the continuing threat of poaching?
The front-line staff face some problems during patrolling in the rainy season. This gives poachers a window of opportunity. We have built a special security network involving electronic surveillance, drones, camera traps etc. I am committed to better protection and management of tiger reserves.

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The other side of the problem is too many tigers fuelling conflict in certain areas.
The success in tiger conservation is the result of the hard work of many people. But every success brings its own problems. Tigers need enough prey and we are augmenting the availability of fodder and water for the prey species. Interestingly, farmers living around tiger reserves themselves suggested this to me. At the same time, we have to understand the pressure on land. We have 17 per cent of the humanity and nearly one-fifth of the global cattle population in only 2.5 per cent of the global land area. So there will be conflict. Last year, wild animals caused 500 deaths. Nowhere else in the world are so many people killed by wild animals. Eventually we may have to dig trenches to keep the wildlife away.

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Won’t that turn the sanctuaries and reserves into glorified zoos?
No, I am not saying we are digging trenches. But we have to understand the reality. See, lions are different. They happily live around villagers in Gujarat. But not tigers. So while we want safe passage for wildlife, we must also ensure people’s safety so that there is no casualty on either side. We have to fine-tune our laws and management practices towards sustainability.

There is a perception that your ministry does not want to make public key reports on wildlife corridors.
Not at all. I have not concealed any information. We have declared two tiger reserves and are open to having more but the proposals have to come from the states. You cannot dismiss what we have achieved despite the population pressure on land. Both tiger and people have adapted to changing circumstances. The best thing about India is that people and wildlife are mostly in sync here. In many conflict areas people have the permission to cull animals such as the blue bull but the psychology is such that they refuse to do it themselves.

Your ministry’s stand on the widening of NH-7 in the Kanha-Pench wildlife corridor has drawn criticism. Did you give in to NHAI’s demand to drastically reduce the mitigation requirements?
Can we spend double the project cost for mitigation? We are a poor country and must be practical. For example, there is this proposal for a long flyover on NH-37 to avoid roadkill along Kaziranga. As a hands-on person, I visited the spot and found seven critical crossings where we can put sensor towers that will automatically stop the traffic when wild animals approach the highway. Each tower will cost around Rs 1 crore. A flyover would cost Rs 1,200 crore. In the NH-7 case, we — (Highways Minister Nitin) Gadkari, (Maharashtra CM Devendra) Fadnavis and I — worked out a mitigation plan that is feasible. What I am really excited about is this new concept of natural-looking green overpasses in place of tunnel-like underpasses for wildlife.

The mandate and primary job of the Ministry of Environment and Forests is to protect the environment and forests. But the number of projects cleared tops the achievement lists put out by your ministry.
We highlighted only the defence projects. I was in the standing committee for five years and the backlog of defence projects during UPA (rule) pained me. In any case, more projects were cleared and more forestland was diverted in 2012 (1,522 projects and 25,000 hectares) and 2,013 (1,317 projects and 41,000 hectares) than 2014 (783 projects and 35,000 hectares). So this perception is wrong.  My job is to look after the sanctity of the five elements. I have strengthened pollution norms. Then there are the air quality index and steps taken in waste management. Be it plastic, electronic, construction or solid waste, management is being improved and we are in the process of evaluating the suggestions we have received. Also, the CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) bill was tabled. All these have brought alive a dead ministry.

But the buzz is only about improving ease of business.
That was during my first year when necessary steps were taken to counter the UPA legacy of bottlenecks. Now, even industries are realising that they will have to comply with strict air and water standards and such. In my second year, the focus is on setting stringent norms.
Next year, the thrust will be on people’s participation. But I agree we should highlight these achievements more.

You are accused of diluting environmental norms through executive orders.
There is no question of dilution. And why would we need executive orders when the government has the authority to reform the laws? We are following the complete legal process. The TSR (Subramanian) committee was the first step. We have taken inputs from all ministries. We are also studying the global best practices. We should be ready by November.

There was a prolonged exchange of letters between your ministry and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) till the issue of gram sabha consent was referred to the law ministry.
There is no turf war. There are certain issues with public hearing etc. But the FRA (Forest Rights Act) is under MoTA and I do not want to infringe upon its domain.

Has the law ministry decided on it?
I don’t know. I have not heard from them.

You have directed that the word ‘diversion’ be replaced with ‘reforestation’ in ministry communication.
That news report upset me. See, we don’t give forestland when there are alternatives. But projects such as mines are site-specific and have to be allowed while ensuring sustainable environment practices. I am not saying vinash ke bina vikas nahin. I am saying aaghat ke bina naad nahin. Anyway, there is no reduction in forest area because every time we divert any forestland for a project, an equal area of non-forest land is declared as forestland.

But this is not just about land, it is about forests. Sapilings can’t compensate for trees.
That is step two. I know saplings take time to grow but that is why we have net present value (NPV) that user agencies pay for cutting trees. First we declare non-forestland as forest and then we use that money — NPV — for compensatory afforestation. Due to the bankruptcy of the UPA government, this money — thousands of crores of it — was locked up with an unaccountable authority. I have presented the CAMPA bill and will soon put that fund to good use.

Will it also be utilised for other critical conservation work? To build passageways to protect wildlife corridors since NHAI says it doesn’t have the money?
Of course, plantation is not everything. We will use it for research, water and habitat management, protection- everything… NHAI has the money. Gadkariji will carry out correct mitigation measures. We need to have a sense of proportion and the right perspective. We will do all we need to save environment, forest and wildlife. But we cannot allow something crazy (in the name of conservation).

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