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Why Moily is in a hurry to clear big projects

Last updated on: January 22, 2014 11:31 IST

Why Moily is in a hurry to clear big projects

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Shine Jacob and Jyoti Mukul in New Delhi

Veerappa Moily has within a month cleared projects worth Rs 1.5 lakh crore (Rs 1.5 trillion) -- 15 per cent of the hitherto uncleared files lying with the environment ministry -- note Shine Jacob and Jyoti Mukul.

"The contrast is almost like shifting from Test cricket to T-20 within three days," says an officer when asked about the change of guard at the Union environment ministry at Paryavaran Bhawan in New Delhi.

Jayanthi Natarajan resigned on December 21; two days later, Petroleum Minister M Veerappa Moily was given the additional charge of environment.

The charge against Natarajan was that projects worth a staggering Rs 10 lakh crore (Rs 10 trillion) were stuck because of her.

As a result, disaffection with the United Progressive Alliance was running high.

This had drawn the ire of none other than Congress Vice-president Rahul Gandhi who promised industry speedier environment clearance at a public function in New Delhi.

The Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate and Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, talked of a 'Jayanthi tax' that had derailed the economy.

How true are these allegations?

According to Natarajan's critics, the Tamil Nadu politician was sitting on at least 350 files, while her office returned at least 180 files from her home.

"About 119 files were signed but were still held back by the minister for unknown reasons, while 50 signed ones were held back by her staff.

"As many as 28 files were sent to her in 2012, while three dated 2011.

"One fails to understand the justification for holding back files," said Ajay Kumar, a Lok Sabha member of the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) from Jamshedpur and also a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on environment, in a letter written to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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Image: A view of the decorated central hall of the Indian parliament.
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters

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Why Moily is in a hurry to clear big projects

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Moily, in sharp contrast has within a month cleared projects worth Rs 1.5 lakh crore (Rs 1.5 trillion) -- 15 per cent of the alleged backlog.

"He understands that the government is left with only three to four months to go for big-ticket clearances," adds another ministry official who does not want to be named.

With general elections four or five months away, and the model code of conduct likely to kick in before that, the window of opportunity is indeed small.

It would be unwise for the United Progressive Alliance to go to the elections with another charge of inactivity. This is the problem Moily is out to fix.

"There is space for everyone: wildlife, mankind and environment," Moily said while taking over last month. Interestingly, it is the public sector that has gained the most in Moily's stint as the environment minister (see table).

On policy matters too, Natarajan and Moily (he decided to take the Metro to work once a week last year in order to conserve fuel) stand poles apart.

In what has provided huge relief to industry, and also the Congress in six states, he has stonewalled the implementation of the K Kasturirangan report, leaving the next government to take a call on it.

According to the report, 37 per cent of the total area of the Western Ghats -- around 60,000 sq km -- should be labelled ecologically-sensitive zone where the government should keep a tab on development projects and mining. Natarajan was facing flak from various states for her keenness to implement the report.

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Image: Veerappa Moily.
Photographs: Courtesy, Veerappa Moily's website

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Why Moily is in a hurry to clear big projects

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Moily introduced a revised draft on forest clearance policy, stating that clearances be granted within a specified time frame.

In another decision that will speed up forest clearances for linear projects (national highways, pipelines, transmission lines et cetera), Moily has said these projects can go ahead without the consent of the gram sabhas (village committees).

However, Vedanta Resources' alumina project in Orissa, which got stuck after 12 gram sabhas of the Niyamgiri hills from where the company was to source bauxite voted against the mining operations, won't gain from this directive.

After all, Rahul Gandhi had raised the red flag on the proposed mining.

This has led Orissa Steel and Mines Minister Rajani Kant Singh to say in public that "Moily and the Centre are stalling the development of the bauxite-rich Kalahandi region".

Man for all reasons

Moily moved to national politics in 2009 as the law minister. Since then, he has handled five portfolios, of which the last three -- power, petroleum and environment -- came his way when they were in the middle of a controversy.

Moily took additional charge as power minister in August 2012, a day after power grid failures plunged northern and eastern India into darkness for two consecutive days.

Moily's short tenure of three months in the ministry left its mark: he got the Cabinet approval for the financial restructuring package for distressed power distribution companies.

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Image: Former Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan.
Photographs: Rediff Archives

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Why Moily is in a hurry to clear big projects

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Next came the ministry of petroleum and natural gas, where his entry in October 2012 was greeted with suspicion.

His predecessor, Jaipal Reddy, had earned the reputation of being anti-Reliance.

Though Reddy's indecisiveness had slowed down processes even for public sector oil companies, a pro-Reliance narrative got created for Moily when he replaced Reddy.

Within four months, he put in place a plan for phased diesel deregulation and even got the ministry moving on clearances. Next came the tricky issue of gas prices.

Moily got the Cabinet's approval for a formula that could see an increase in domestic natural gas price. He not only survived the high-pitched attack of Communist leader Gurudas Dasgupta but also got the additional charge of environment ministry.

Moily has now cranked up the environment ministry.

Some have expressed concern at his frenetic pace.

"We do not agree with the way clearances are being granted. The system cannot be such that it only appeases industry," says Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment.

"It raises doubts; while one person was sitting on projects, the other is doing it at a faster pace.

"Moily should check whether he is also keeping environment at ransom while going for swift clearances and proper evaluation should be done," Kumar says.

"I am clearing at least 80 to 100 files on an average every day. I will not allow any project to be stuck here," Moily says.

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Image: A view of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd. Refinery in Mumbai.
Photographs: Reuters

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Why Moily is in a hurry to clear big projects

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Doubts have also been expressed if there is a conflict of interest for Moily because he is also the minister for petroleum and natural gas.

Will projects from the oil and gas sector get priority over others? His critics raised this issue after 70 oil and gas blocks were given clearance for auctioning by the oil ministry in swift pace.

"Everything has its space.

"Petroleum has its space, just like every ministry has its space.

"Ultimately, we have to go by the rules of the game which have been laid out by every ministry.

"We should not cross it. There should not be any fear or favour while discharging the duties," he says.

However, even his closest aides believe "Moily's T-20 pace of work" has only three months; he has to score the maximum in this short time.


THE MOILY EFFECT

Major projects investments (in Rs crore)

Rs 52,000 cr (Rs 520 billion) Posco's 12 MT steel plant, Odisha
Rs 23,000 cr (Rs 230 billion) NPC's 2800 MW power plant in Haryana
Rs 6,000 cr (Rs 60 billion) NHPC's Arunachal Pradesh hydro project
Rs 5,000 cr (Rs 50 billion) Vizhinjam deepwater container transshipment port
Rs 5,000 cr (Rs 50 billion) Ennore LNG terminal
Rs 467 cr (Rs 4.67 billion) Kapurdi Lignite Mine Project in Rajasthan

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Image: A worker at ONGC gas plant.
Photographs: Reuters

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TAXING TIMES

Jayanthi Natarajan calls Modi's jibe of "Jayanthi tax" a personal attack because of her stiff opposition to green violations in Gujarat.

"There is not even a single file that was pending before me.

"Only 8 per cent of projects that need environment clearance come to the Union ministry of environment and forests; the rest are cleared by the respective states and regional offices.

"Hence, it is wrong to say that I was sitting on projects with huge investment figures.

"Moreover, environment impacts have to be given priority in this ministry, not investment figures," she says.

She adds that there were instances in which forest advisory meetings had to leave empty handed because there were no projects left with them to be cleared.

She took charge of the ministry in April 2011 and, according to her, resigned to focus on party work in her state.

"At the environment ministry, one should not think about investment numbers, but the impact on projects on environment and its legal aspects for clearances."

Natarajan, for the record, was brought in as a replacement for Jairam Ramesh in whose tenure several large projects had got stuck.


Image: An employee counts Indian currency at a fuel station in Mumbai.
Photographs: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

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