MAC: Mines and Communities

India's new environment minister threatens "speedier" mining permits

Published by MAC on 2011-07-18
Source: Statement, Indo-Asian News Service

Ramesh goes, Natarajan arrives

Last week, the Indian government replaced Jairam Ramesh, the country's minister of Environment and Forests (MoEF) with a woman lawyer called Jayanthi Natarajan.

Over the past two years Ramesh had become the best-known Indian cabinet minister in the outside world  -  at least among social and environmental activists.

However, following his much-praised 2010 rejection of Vedanta's Nyamgiri mine project in Orissa, Ramesh succumbed to pressure from pro-mining interests.

He gave a qualified go-ahead for the notorious POSCO iron and steel project; and also went back on an earlier undertaking to designate many coal-rich areas of the country off-limits to mining (see article below).

Was this the issue that brought about Ramesh's dismissal (He's now been shifted to responsibility for "rural development")?

Had he become too much of a loose canon? After all, last June he urged that force not be used to remove villagers trying to protect their farms in the POSCO concession area in Orissa. Yet, shortly before, he had ignited the green light for this massive project.

Or perhaps he simply found his position becoming increasingly untenable and sought a quieter, less controversial, posting.

"Speeding up" new mines?

The new MoEF minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, is a relatively unknown quantity, with no major experience in handling community, environmental or forest issues.

In a recent media interview she failed even to acknowledge the highly complex justice and rights issues surrounding scores of planned new mineral projects.

Instead - citing POSCO and Vedanta in particular - she called for "one window clearances" of new mines, implying that, even if later submissions undermine an earlier decision, a project will nonetheless be allowed to proceed.

Yet, it was exactly such additional information that served to spike the original permit given by the MoEF to Vedanta's unacceptable Nyamgiri mining venture in Orissa.

[Comment by Nostromo Research, 17 July 2011].

For latest news on the POSCO project, seePeoples' struggles against POSCO broaden in India - and beyond

For an update on Vedanta's operations in Orissa, see: Vedanta accused of polluting Andhra Pradesh

For previous MAC story on coal block clearances, please see: Indian coal fields open to mining, despite earlier ban

Speedy decisions on Posco, Vedanta

Indo-Asian News Service

17 July 2011

New Delhi:While insisting that the environment must be protected at all costs, environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan on Sunday said "the past is over" and she will ensure speedy decisions on major projects like Posco and Vedanta.

In an interview to a private news channel, Natarajan, who last week succeeded Jairam Ramesh as the environment minister, said there should be clarity on decisions taken on environmental projects and that once a clearance is given, it should not be changed or revoked.

"While I will insist that at all costs the environment must be protected in all its dimensions, the easy way to do it is to make sure that there is a speedy decision...and that I can do and will facilitate," she said while speaking on the ministry's stand on mega projects like Posco and Vedanta.

"There should be a one window clearance and there should be complete clarity. I will make sure that there will be no confusion and complete clarity but having said that, in the past perhaps there was something that came up later that necessitated a change. The past is over and I will ensure that complete clarity on these issues exists," she added.

After reports that a green signal had been given to the Vedanta project at Lanjigarh in Orissa for bauxite mining near the Niyamgiri reserve forest, the environment ministry under Ramesh had on July 2 denied granting clearance to it.

Similarly South Korean steel major Posco's $12 billion steel project in Orissa was given conditional clearance by the environment ministry last May after taking a tough stand.

Jairam Ramesh's legacy is an Indian environment ministry with an identity

The recently promoted Ramesh took on industrialists and his cabinet colleagues, now Jayanti Natarajan must do the same

T V Padma

Guardian (UK) blog

13 July 2011

In March, during the release of India's tiger census, some friendly banter between the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh and corporate affairs minister Salman Khursheed saw the latter observe that Ramesh was acquiring a tiger's features. "Run foul of him, and he will turn into a man-eater," Khursheed joked. Khursheed hoped Ramesh would not "land in the endangered" list like the tigers, words that have this week proved prophetic.

On Tuesday, India's prime minister Manmohan Singh elevated Ramesh to a senior minister's rank, but also shifted him out of the environment and forests ministry to rural development where, Singh said, Ramesh's talents would be "better utilised".

It had been coming. The bullish Ramesh, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology had upset many a government and business lobby's applecart. Until he took reins of his ministry in 2009, most Indians could not place who their environment minister was or what s/he said or did. The ministers collaborated with all mega projects such as dams and power plants, reducing the ministry to a rubber stamp.

When development becomes paramount in a country like India, green concerns, however justified, are ignored. When Ramesh took over, India was one half of "ChinIndia"; growing at a 8-9% and courted as a future economic powerhouse. Sections of the Indian establishment took it so seriously that they seemed to forget that vast stretches of India are lagging behind, and are closer to sub-Saharan Africa than China in development indicators such as literacy, maternal and child mortality.

Some of India's more controversial projects were coming up in such areas, home to tribes and biodiversity-rich forests. Examples include a $12bn steel project awarded to South Korean firm Posco, Vedanta Resources' bauxite mining project in eastern India and a controversial mega nuclear power plant, the world's largest and with French reactors, in Jaitapur. Others, such as a high-rise housing complex in Mumbai, violated Indian laws that prohibit buildings along the coast.

As Ramesh observed in a "hedgehog versus fox" debate in May: "India needs to be liberated both from the 'high GDP growth hedgehogs' and the 'conservation at all costs hedgehogs'. What India needs, he said, is a smooth, cunning and crafty fox that balances high growth and conservation. "The hedgehog view (sticking to one big idea) is unresponsive and inattentive to the untidiness and complexity of real life," he observed.

Ramesh held public consultations, raised environment-related objections, and cancelled some projects. He set up a national green tribunal, and worked on forest dwellers' rights. In 2010 he imposed a two-year moratorium on India's genetically engineered aubergine, and rebuked Indian science academies for their disappointing report on the subject.

He backed a until-then unknown retired Indian scientist who wanted to point out that the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report's prediction that Himalayan glaciers would vanish by 2035 was wrong, which set the ball rolling about the need for stricter verification in IPCC reports.

Ramesh lashed out against what he saw as "politicisation of climate science". He insisted India should not depend on western scientists' studies on climate change, and initiated a series of Indian studies on greenhouse gas emissions and black carbon.

All decisions were made public on his ministry's websites, some running at more than 100 pages, with scores of appendices.

But raising the green ante meant raising the hackles of powerful industrialists and cabinet colleagues. In April, Ramesh told a meeting chaired by Singh that India's target of adding 100,000MW power from 2012-17 was ecologically impossible.

Ramesh could also be outspoken, on one occasion declaring: "If there is a Nobel prize for dirt and filth, India will win it, no doubt." But Ramesh eventually compromised, clearing the steel, coal and nuclear power plant projects and even a new airport for Mumbai. So why did he go?

Most analysts agree that Ramesh's demarcation of forests into a "go" and "no-go" zone for coal plants was his undoing. An estimated 660m tonnes of coal fell within the no-go zones. The most recent tussle was over a coal project in a forested area in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, with the coal minister and powerful industrialists pressuring Singh for a speedy clearance.

His successor is Jayanti Natarajan, an articulate lawyer, a spokesperson for Congress party and a former junior minister in the civil aviation ministry. Ramesh raised the bar for the environment ministry's performance and if Natarajan raises it further, or at least maintains it, it will be good for India.

• TV Padma is a Delhi-based science journalist

Clearance for Coal Blocks: MoEF Throws "No Go" Into the Dustbin Along With the Law

Statement by Campaign for Survival and Dignity

7 July 2011

On June 23rd, overruling its own statutory Forest Advisory Committee, MoEF gave "in principle" forest clearance for mining in coal blocks in the Hasdev Arand area of Chhattisgarh.

Most of the response to this decision has focused on the Minister's backtracking on the Ministry's classification of this area as a "no go" for coal mining. The Ministry backtracking on public positions is, of course, nothing new; but this decision is condemnable for other reasons as well.

The area in question is in Chhattisgarh and is inhabited by Gond adivasis.

Having come to know of the arbitrary decision to destroy their forests and homelands, the communities of the area have decided to resist. The Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, a coalition of groups in Chhattisgarh (including the Campaign's members), has begun mobilising in the area.

As per the information available, there has hardly been any implementation of the Forest Rights Act in the area, and only a handful of individual titles appear to have been distributed. Community rights to the forest have not been recognised. Under the law, even the in principle clearance could not have been given without implementation of the Forest Rights Act.

Therefore gram sabhas [village governments] of the area are being convened to pass resolutions rejecting the proposed diversion of forest land, reminding the Ministry of its legal obligation to respect the rights of the people to their community forests, and pointing out that the area was once classified as "no go."

The Ministry's July 2009 order, and the Forest Rights Act, makes such resolutions binding and should lead to a withdrawal of the in principle clearance, since any final clearance becomes impossible (unless new resolutions are passed).

However, knowing the Ministry's track record, we can be certain that these resolutions and the law will be brazenly violated. The final clearance will be given for these blocks in due course of time, justified, as this order itself is, by flowery rhetoric about strategic importance.

Indeed, four of the six reasons cited in the order - paras 3, 5, 6 and 7 - have nothing to do with the Ministry's domain. It is particularly striking that two of the six reasons cited - paras 3 and 6 - simply are about the fact that the companies and the State governments in question followed up with MoEF and engaged in some negotiation.

This itself is apparently a reason for the Ministry to "reciprocate" (para 3). Is the forest clearance function a bargaining process between two old friends, or a statutory regulatory function?

Meanwhile, the only two paragraphs about the environment relate to a vague assertion that the area is "less biodiverse" (no evidence is cited for this assertion) and another talks of a potential "wildlife management plan." We all know the level of compliance with these plans.

The "no go" classification, an executive guideline that was never and will never be incorporated into even the Forest Conservation Rules (as admitted on record by MoEF), was never much more than a sham.

What is important is to remember that, in Hasdev Arand, as in POSCO, Jaitapur, Polavaram, and hundreds of other projects, people, democracy and law are on one side; and the Ministry, with its "talk green walk brown" approach, is on the other.

Campaign for Survival and Dignity


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