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Exclusive: 'The age of indecision has come to an end'

By Rashme Sehgal
August 28, 2014 16:00 IST
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Prime Minister Modi addresses ISRO scientists at the PSLV launch. Photograph: PTI PhotoPrakash Javadekar enjoys being information and broadcasting and parliamentary affairs minister, but heading the green ministry is turning out to be thornier than he had expected.

The minister spoke to contributor Rashme Sehgal in an exclusive interview.

Prakash Javadekar could teach former environment minister M Veerappa Moily a lesson or two. In his two month tenure at the ministry, Moily cleared over a hundred projects worth $40 billion (about Rs 2.4 lakh crore). Javedkar, right, below, is busy dismantling the entire environmental regulatory framework in the country.

An indiscriminate green signalling of industrial, mining and power projects will result in the devastation of India's resources whereas the need of the hour is to work towards building a sustainable and efficient management of India's natural resources.

When this question is put to Javadekar, he replies, without batting an eyelid, that all these rapid fire environmental clearances granted in the last two months would serve not only to rejuvenate the economy, but will serve to improve the environment.

"These decisions had been pending for some time now and all the clearances we have granted have been according to the law," he says, adding, "I believe these clearances will in no way harm the environment, rather they will serve to protect the environment."

The sanctioning of a slew of projects by the newly-constituted National Board of Wildlife at its first meeting raised eyebrows amongst environmentalists. The National Board of Wildlife is mandated to scrutinise development projects proposed in and around national parks and sanctuaries.

The July 22 government notification had only one NGO and two experts on the board whereas they are supposed to include five NGOs and ten expert conservationists.

"There is nothing unconstitutional about the meeting," insists Javadekar. "There is no law which states the number of members required for a meeting of the standing committee. It is only when the meeting is chaired by the prime minister that a full quorum is required."

He dismissed the accusation that the Gujarat Ecological Education and Research Foundation was little more than a government body and could hardly be given the status of an NGO.

Had the standing committee of the National Board of Wildlife actually given sanction to 140 stalled projects located around 80 parks, sanctuaries and tiger reserves? Javadekar looks dismayed by the question, insisting, "All our decisions will stand scrutiny under the law."

The minister's words turned out to be extremely optimistic because the Supreme Court has subsequently put in abeyance the green nod given to all the green projects sanctioned by the National Board of Wildlife.

Will the shrinking of the wildlife corridors hamper the movement of wildlife especially the tiger. The minister declares emphatically, "On the contrary, we are working hard to increase the habitat of the tiger and want to ensure that the present tiger population goes up from 1,600 to 2,000."

And indeed the ministry of environment has already announced the process by which a Tiger Task Force will be set up across all the tiger states in the country.

Javadekar presently balances three difficult portfolios. And there is no doubt that he is much more confident when he speaks on subjects relating to the information and broadcasting ministry as also on political matters having been a senior spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party for several years.

On the controversial issue of the transfer and sacking of United Progressive Alliance-appointed governors, Javadekar maintains that they should have resigned on their own. He cites his own example of how he had resigned as deputy chairman of the planning board in Maharashtra following the BJP's loss of power in that state.

He is equally upbeat about Prime Minister Narendra Modi being way ahead of his Cabinet colleagues in the area of micro-blogging. While Modi has 8.2 million followers, Sushma Swaraj, heading the external affairs ministry, is a distant second with 1.4 million followers.

This, the minister points out, has been made possible by the fact that India presently has 250 million Internet users from which 110 million access the Internet on mobile. "We (the I&B ministry) have prepared a list of all the ministers with their followers (on social media) and this will be circulated to them so that they can see how their ministries are performing," he says.

It is only when questions are directed regarding the environment ministry (which he seldom visits) that the minister becomes defensive. Javedkar is not willing to give any credence to the strong rumour that his ministry is working overtime to clip the National Green Tribunal's wings especially since many of its verdicts have hit out hard against the manner in which the green ministry operated.

On the issue of trimming the National Green Tribunal's wings, he merely says, "It has been set up an Act of Parliament and any decision regarding it will have to be taken by Parliament."

Nor is he happy when I ask about the appointment of current Environment Secretary V Rajagopalan as chairman of the National Biodiversity Authority since this would be construed as a clear case of conflict of interest. Rajagopalan is due to retire this month.

When asked about the issue of whether the National Democratic Alliance government would green signal field trials of genetically modified crops that had been put on hold, he asks, "How can you stop science, that is the question." But he refuses to elaborate if he has signed on the decision stating, "I will give my opinion on this matter very soon."

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, a regulatory panel operating under the environment ministry's aegis, recently recommended field trials of 15 GM crops including rice, chickpea, brinjal and mustard.

The project closest to the minister's heart is the immediate cleaning up of the Ganga river primarily because it enjoys top priority with Prime Minister Modi. "One of the first steps we plan to take within the next six months will be to install high-tech sensors at critical points along the Ganga. This is being done to monitor industrial effluents and pollutants in the river. These sensors will send out alerts when effluents cross permissible limits," he says going on to assert, "We will be doing real time monitoring of all polluting industries. Already 46 industries have been shut down. but there are nearly 700 polluting industries which need to be monitored."

"Pollution in the Ganga will not be permitted under any circumstances," Javdekar declares. "The entire monitoring of this project will be done by the Central Pollution Control Board."

Javadekar is not exactly forthcoming on how the natural flow of the Ganga river would be revived given that sanction for building of over 600 dams on the river had not been rolled back. All he is willing to state is, "When we improve our productivity and our infrastructure -- especially our roads -- our pollution levels all round are bound to decline."

Has the green ministry lost a key portfolio by handing this project over to the ministry of water resources? "On the contrary, we have created a special ministry for the Ganga that will focus on cleaning it up," he says.

A decision on which report he is planning to adopt, the Gadgil or the Kasturirangan report on the fate of the Western Ghats, sees him reply succinctly "I will inform you as soon as a decision is taken on this matter. The Gadgil report came first. It was followed by the Kasturirangan report. But you need to understand that we have to follow a democratic process."

"I am in the process of listening to all the concerned states. I am also hearing the views of all the concerned chief ministers, the MPs and also the affected villagers. At present all states are doing ground truthing."

Three months into his job, and he declares very proudly, "The age of indecision has come to an end." And there is no doubt that clearances are being granted with frightening rapidity.

One of his earliest clearances was to fast track the Indian Navy's Karwar project that will help secure several Coast Guard stations along the Indian coast as well as along Mumbai's coastline.

"Clearance to this project has been pending for some time. It is a project of great strategic importance which we have sanctioned. Only when a country is secure can its environment and people be made secure," he says.

Soon after taking over the ministry he says, "A week ago, when we took over, I was going through some files and found that a lot of matters pertained to the power ministry. Piyush (Goyal, the minister of power) and I spoke on the phone, got our secretaries to meet us at Paryavaran Bhavan and hammered out at least some issues," he says. "I am not saying we are going to rush through clearances, but that indecision will be at an end."

Keeping in mind the increasing Chinese clout along our northern borders, the minister has fast tracked green clearance processes for border roads and defence projects which fall within 100 kms from the Line of Actual Control. Close to 80 critical roads covering 6,000 kilometres had been held up due to lack of environmental clearances. He does not specify what the clearances were and what has held them up.

A recent statement by the green ministry clarified that it would come up with a specific policy framework intended to reduce the delays caused by the process of environmental clearances particularly for defence projects. In a dramatic change from the past, the ministry has decided to take decisions rooted in the overall policy framework rather than make case-by-case decisions.

'The details of this policy framework would be worked out soon and the document would be placed in the public domain,' the statement read.

Unfortunately, this former banker, who has had his political grooming in the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the BJP's students' wing, has shown little foresight when handling the most crucial issue of the Narcondam Hornbill, a rarest of rare bird, whose only nesting habitat remains in one tiny island in the Andaman and Nicobar island archipelago.

"There is an island called the Coco Island in the Bay of Bengal which is under Myanmar. However, China has its presence on that island. There is a project pending to set up a radar on Narcondam Island, which is just opposite Coco Island," Javadekar said, adding, "We are looking into the project."

The Indian Coast Guard has proposed building a radar station and a diesel power generation unit on the island and sources within the green ministry confirm that it will be okayed. Environmentalists say only 300 Narcondam Hornbills are left on earth and another island could have been selected to set up a radar station, but their views have been ignored.

In a bid to ensure greater transparency in the ministry's functioning, Javadekar says, "A new system for online submission of applications for environmental clearances will be operational from June 1. No applications would be entertained for clearances through any route except for online method from July 1. The same will apply for forest clearances from August 1."

One of Javadekar's favourite expressions is taking "decisions in the nation's interest." This could well explain why within a fortnight of taking over, he announced the raising of the height of the controversial Narmada Dam by 17 metres.

Although activist Medha Patkar has warned that this would impact nearly a million people, the project will help provide more water to Gujarat.

He credited Modi's "vision" for the decision to change the nomenclature of the ministry to the ministry of environment, forest and climate change. It was earlier known as the ministry of environment and forests.

"The change is a deep thought initiative taking into account the contemporary trends related to issues pertaining to climate change," the minister says.

On the I&B front, Javadekar wants Doordarshan to once again become the premier channel for viewers and to do so he is willing to make the national broadcaster truly autonomous. "DD must show results," he says, and in the same breath claims, "DD has 12 channels and it must be mandatory for all cable operators to show them. Of course, ultimately people have the remote."

On becoming minister he had told an television interviewer that he was philosophically and ideologically willing to work towards the abolition of the I&B ministry. This is not one controversy he wants to skirt away from.

When asked, he simply says, "Ideologically and philosophically, earlier some people used to talk about withering away of the State. That was their belief. Our belief is that the government should not control or run the media. The government should never need to exercise control, the media should have its own (control) mechanisms in place."

This could well explain his lengthy interactions with senior media heads including the top brass at Prasar Bharati, Doordarshan and All India Radio.

Modi, he says, has encouraged his ministers to be innovative. One innovative practice the two ministries under him would start is regarding the ads they issue. It has been decided people would be asked to provide ideas and designs for ads and DAVP alone will release them. "We will recognise and award the good designs that are selected," he says. "We want to use the collective wisdom of the people."

Prime Minister Modi addresses ISRO scientists at the PSLV launch. Photograph: PTI Photo

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