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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A ministry that needs to die

It's not just because I am bored with mango man and his mysterious riches that you will not be reading about the son-in-law of our supreme leader in this column today

Written by Tavleen Singh
October 14, 2012 2:47:56 am

It’s not just because I am bored with mango man and his mysterious riches that you will not be reading about the son-in-law of our supreme leader in this column today. It is because the ‘banana republic’ faces problems that I believe are more serious. On account of the headlines grabbed by mango man’s shady business practices last week,too little attention was paid to the row that erupted between the ministers of environment and finance. It is a turf war and the environment minister has made it clear that she intends to hang on to the powers her ministry has to block vital projects. Meanwhile,the finance minister is trying to set up an investment promotion board to override the obstacles created in the name of saving the environment.

This column has argued before that the economic downturn of the past two years began because the former minister of environment chose to revive the licence raj by using his ministry’s immense powers to stop projects from going ahead. When the Prime Minister,unfortunately a man of immeasurable patience,realised that Shri Jairam Ramesh had gone too far,he kicked him upstairs and brought in someone whom he thought would understand that development does not necessarily have to be on a collision course with the environment.

Every major western country is proof of this. Clean rivers flow through modern cities,sewage and garbage is disposed of hygienically and it is possible in these countries to drive through pristine countryside undamaged by modernity and development. Mistakes made earlier have been rectified and India,where development and prosperity have come much later,should have learned from these mistakes.

We did not. So we have the filthiest cities and villages in the world. All our rivers have been turned into sewers and our forests and mountains have been devastated by bad policies and grinding poverty. But,we have a Minister of Environment who has the powers to block major development projects in the name of saving the environment. How are we to understand this conundrum? Easily. The environment ministry has a history of being used as a tool of extortion in exchange for clearances and in more recent times as an obstacle in the path of progress. This has happened because the very serious business of protecting the environment has been left in the hands of whimsical and ambitious politicians.

The problem is exacerbated by the tendency ministers have shown to rely on information provided by so-called environmental NGOs who are mostly frauds. In an excellent cover story last week,India Today,drew attention to the Adani group’s port in Mundra being stopped by an ‘expert committee’ that recommended closure because it violated the coastal regulation zone. If ports are not to be built on the coast where should they be built? Other ‘expert committees’ have given equally specious reasons and more than 900 projects remain blocked by the environment ministry.

So the finance minister is right to want a mechanism to control the environment ministry but instead of just an investment promotion board,what he needs to ask for is the abolition of the ministry altogether. The environment is too important to be in the hands of people who turn it into a political football. What we need is an Environmental Protection Agency headed by someone like Rajendra Pachauri. It should be a constitutional body manned by experts and with a mandate to draw up clear and measureable guidelines. Only then will it be possible to concentrate on saving our rivers,forests and mountains. Only then will the charlatans who make vast fortunes in the name of running environmental NGOs be exposed.

It would be wrong if I did not add that environmental journalists are nearly as big frauds as the NGOs. When the environment became a glamorous,fashionable subject,there suddenly appeared in the media a profusion of two-bit hacks who became ‘experts’ on the subject. It was a good career move because there was little competition and great opportunities for free travel to international conferences often with generous help from the environment ministry.

So if the Prime Minister is sincere about the economic reforms he has suddenly rediscovered,his most urgent next step should be to abolish the environment ministry. Otherwise he could spend the rest of his term in office reading lengthy letters from an environment minister whose idea of preservation seems limited to preserving her turf. Forgive me. She put in a stellar performance on television last week in trying to preserve the fair name of mango man’s mama-in-law. And proved,thereby,that she would be more useful if she went back to being spokesman for the Congress Party. In fairness,she is not the only one to blame. The environment ministry has proved,over a period of long years,that it is totally,utterly useless.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh

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