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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The disaster Ministry

Let us look closely at the Ministry of Environment and Forests, 20 years after it was created by Rajiv Gandhi, who had in 1985 implemented w...

Written by Valmik Thapar |
January 24, 2005

Let us look closely at the Ministry of Environment and Forests, 20 years after it was created by Rajiv Gandhi, who had in 1985 implemented what Indira Gandhi had wanted to see done in her lifetime. It is directly responsible for the implementation of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), Forest Conservation Act (FCA), Environment Protection Act (EPA) and the recent Biodiversity Act—the states are the implementing agencies.

In 2005 the MoEF has become a khichdi of hundreds of different things. Forests, wildlife and the environment are all part of a single department. Let’s look at its mandate. Forests make up 21 per cent of India’s landmass—forest protection, conservation of all the wildlife that lives in it, maintaining ecologically fragile areas and governing institutions for research, like the Indian Council for Forest Research and Education (ICFRE), Botanical Survey of India (BSI), Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Wildlife Institute of India (WII), to river-cleaning operations, afforestation of land, coastal regulation zones, eco-development, environmental research and education and the huge National River Conservation Directorate (also building 3,600 toilets, believe it or not!), hazardous-substance management, pollution control boards, clean technologies, water-quality monitoring, fly-ash utilisation, climate change, externally aided projects, animal welfare matters, administration of zoos, legal cells, global conventions are all part of the parcel. Projects concerning river valleys and hydro-electric power, thermal power, mines, infrastructural and miscellaneous projects and nuclear projects—315 such were cleared in 2003-2004—have expert committees that provide environmental clearance to project proponents.

In the 1990s there were still some experts on these committees but in the last few years they have been stuffed with all kinds of forms and shapes (more than 100 ‘‘experts’’ must work on these committees) and those who are not too critical and can be ‘‘persuaded’’ to accelerate the endless process of project clearance. Each of the projects is cleared subject to conditions, and sometimes 10-15 conditions each are given subject to clearance. Few of the conditions are ever followed by project proponents—they ‘run away’ after the clearance. Prestigious committees of the MoEF like the Steering Committee for Project Tiger haven’t even met for two years. The mechanisms of the MoEF have become antiquated and rusted. Governance is at its lowest ebb.

The list of MoEF activities is endless. Can you imagine the mess! It is like a huge cauldron of soup endlessly being stirred by millions of activities with few connections to quality or content. Generally environmental issues are looked after by 800 staff and 80 officers and forest matter by 200 staff with 30 officers. And just one secretary who deals with the pile-up of files, from toilets to CNG to national parks!

There are six regional offices of the MoEF supposed to ensure that projects follow their environmental conditions, but when I served two of the expert committees in the 1990s, the regional offices informed that there was over 90 per cent violation of conditions! The mandatory conditions we impose are never followed by the projects and effective monitoring by regional offices in detecting violations receives no priority whatsoever in the MoEF. Little action is taken against the violator. Another invitation for disaster. Ticking time bombs.

Can you imagine how a country governs its future? It is ridiculous Even when the MoEF was created in 1985 it had two departments, of forests and the environment, to streamline functioning. At the whim of a bureaucrat one got disabled. Now because of a rivalry between the services—Indian Forest Services (IFS) and Indian Administrative Services (IAS)—there is no progress in terms of reform. This ministry spends approximately Rs 1,000 crore a year. The 21 per cent of India—the forest India—gets Rs 255 crore a year and a large allocation of this is to research institutions like the ICFRE, which is the MoEF’s own baby. Environment, river conservation and eco-developmental boards get nearly Rs 740 crore a year. In this crazy swirl of activities much confusion reigns in the corridors of the MoEF. Ministers come and go. The repeated dilutions of notifications under the Acts continue to plague our natural world.

Under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, a committee is supposed to decide on what forest land can be diverted and used for development. The Forest Advisory Committee is a statutory committee that advises on the release of forest land. Again some of the horrors that have taken place by this committee are in total violation of the law of the land, including mining leases in sanctuaries, i.e. the Jamua-Ramgarh Sanctuary, Barda Sanctuary, Madhav National Park and a long list of violative projects. Many have now travelled to the apex court. In one case more than 500 violations of the Act were brought to the notice of the Supreme Court, but even after this the MoEF is asleep and little action has been even considered against the violators. Huge pressures and lobbying take place for the release of forest land. As a senior forest officer, who was in charge of this area in the ministry, told me: ‘‘Those with the power to get their projects cleared manage to but those who are simple project proponents without powerful connections suffer.’’

Recently, against the spirit of this Act, a December 21, 2004, directive from the MoEF stated clearly that illegal encroachers are not to be evicted from forest land! There are a string of strange directives and orders of the MoEF in 2004, especially in February, just before election. Many of these have been stayed by the Supreme Court. Who suffers in the end? The forests of India. Inept decisions are a fact of life. So there are thousands of violations of both the Environment Protection Act and Forest Conservation Act and a grave crisis of wildlife where wetlands like Bharatpur (a world heritage site) have no water and tiger reserves like Dampha, Indrawati, Palamau, Srisailam, Sariska etc are bereft of tigers—all this engulfs the MoEF like never before. In the last decade there have been dozens of amendments or dilutions of the Environment Protection Act.

The present structure and functioning of the MoEF would not be acceptable to anyone with common sense, especially our Prime Minister. Firstly the MoEF needs to be sliced in two. A Ministry of Environment and a Ministry of Forests. It is totally ridiculous today to allow such a hotchpotch of activities under one umbrella, which deals with everything from Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and automobile exhaust fumes to building toilets to saving our wilderness. It is disastrous for governance. The new shape will make it lean and efficient and create new structures, especially in the vital area of enforcement of the laws. It will create efficiency and provide priority to a hugely neglected area. If the Prime Minister does not act rapidly the entire machinery that governs our natural world will remain stagnant and be a huge invitation to more natural disasters.

The writer has spent the last 30 years working on issues concerning nature

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