New Delhi: The deadlock over the Navi Mumbai airport project, stuck in a wrangle over environmental issues, is set to be broken next week, environment minister Jairam Ramesh said on the sidelines of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit.
“Next week we will announce the final decision,” Ramesh said. “And you will see we have got a compromise.” Ramesh also sought to dismiss the perception that as a minister he’s acting as a stumbling block to investment and development. Edited excerpts:
Do you feel the debate between environment and development is spiralling out of control, more polarized than ever before?
The debate should not be seen as environment versus development or conservation versus growth. I have always believed the terms of the debate are based on ‘do you want to follow laws or do you want to circumvent them?’ Because the industry has been used to a certain way of ‘managing’, or ‘navigating the regulatory system’. But that has changed in the last 18 months. And what I am saying is that my job in this industry is to implement the laws Parliament has passed. Those laws were passed in the 70s and 80s. And the job of any minister in any ministry is this. So I am not doing rocket science or any Nobel Prize-winning effort.
So now the debate is of the guys who manage to keep within the laws, the 95% who don’t complain, and the 5%, the high profile, rich, powerful, politically very connected, who never had to have any problems or any impediments, who have not had any compliance and have ridden roughshod. And now they have to find that they have to answer uncomfortable questions. So the debate is between those who believe in following the law and those who have been comfortable circumventing them.
So, on the ‘go’ and ‘no-go’ areas in terms of coal mining, the coal ministry had come to you with the proposal...
It is not my invention. It is the coal ministry and Coal India (Ltd) who had come to me with this and now when they find it uncomfortable, now they are saying let us abandon the proposal.
So what the coal ministry actually wanted to say was that in the ‘go’ area it will be a yes from the environment ministry no matter what?
No, I told them very clearly from Day 1 that prima facie ‘go’ means you come for approval and we have to go through FCA (Forest Conservation Act) process. ‘No go’ means don’t even come for approval. And they agreed to this definition. Now, I have kept quiet on this for the last couple of months because of the IPO (initial public offering). And whatever I say, suddenly the IPO tanks and I will be accused of destroying Gold India and not Coal India. But the fact of the matter is a lot of disinformation about this has been spread deliberately. My question is why don’t you maximize production from the ‘go’ area?
If it makes so much sense, then why isn’t any ministry convinced of it? Do you find yourself standing alone in this?
I don’t want to dramatize myself. The fact is there is a certain adversarial nature in my job and I have to be. If I was going to say yes to any proposal that comes from the steel or coal ministry or power ministry, why do you need a minister? Then just have an automatic stamping machine. Then you don’t need a minister who applies his mind. If you have a ministry for this, which has laws, then you have to accept the consequences for it. But like I said, 95% of cases get environmental clearance, 85% get forest clearance. In fact, I would say this is a very unhealthy rate of acceptance, because if we do our due diligence better, the rate of acceptance will actually come down.
So, are we not doing the due diligence?
We don’t. We don’t have the capacity. We don’t have the manpower. We don’t have the time. Look at all our EIAs (environmental impact assessment reports). They’re a joke. They’re a cut and paste job. They’re dishonest environmental assessments. They’re all rapid assessments and not comprehensive. I don’t want to take names, but some of these organizations which do these assessments, government organizations, their credentials are highly doubtful. And this has become a racket in this country.
You also said there’ll be ‘yes, but’ clearances. Does that mean everything will be approved with a ‘but’?
Absolutely not. The steel minister gave a statement that I should be pragmatic, not dogmatic. So I wrote a letter to him saying, ‘Mr Virbhadra Singhji, it is not a question of being dogmatic or pragmatic, all of you want me to be automatic. I don’t want to be automatic.’
Nonetheless, the vast majority of cases will be ‘yes, but’. Look at Navi Mumbai. I started with ‘no’ on it. I admit that in June 2009, my initial position was ‘no’, but (it’s) because I took the ‘no’ position that Cidco (City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra Ltd) and ministry of civil aviation agreed to the ‘but’ in the ‘yes, but’.
And next week we’ll announce the final decision. And you will see we’ve got a compromise. I am 70% happy with what we’ve got. I’m satisfied. I’m very careful with projects involving forest areas, but where there is no forest land involved, it should be fairly smooth sailing.
You also mentioned market-friendly regulations. Where will you be taking this?
This is how the US solved its acid rain problem. We’re starting this experiment in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. It’ll require 100% online monitoring system and then we’ll have a trading system based on the emission permits, so that we don’t need babus to implement regulations. My dream is that we can introduce more and more of this. We need implementation, but not an army of implementers.