Prakash Javadekar’s move from the environment ministry, where he was minister of state (independent charge), to the human resource development (HRD) ministry with a full cabinet rank is being seen as a “reward" for him. But what is the legacy that Javadekar leaves behind?

A new face has entered the hallowed halls of a ministry that in recent times has become more famous for its kindness to industry than its protection of the environment. As media analysts focus on the portfolios that have been rejigged, no one quite knows what to make of the new face that has been inducted in the ministry of environment, forests and climate change. But at least the new man, Anil Madhav Dave, has done some work on green issues.

Dave has worked actively on the conservation of the Narmada. From March to June 2010, he was also a member of the Parliamentary Forum on Global Warming and Climate Change, which will give him the necessary experience to hold his own at the climate negotiations this year in Morocco.

While Javadekar’s move to the HRD ministry as Smriti Irani’s replacement is being seen as a reward, the fact is he leaves behind a muddled, pro-industry legacy. It is muddled because several attempts were made during his tenure to dilute India’s strong body of environment laws through the T.S.R. Subramanian committee report to favour industry.

A second more dangerous initiative was taken recently in the form of the “Environmental Supplement Plan". It is dangerous because it was quietly slipped in through a government gazette notification instead of through public engagement, as has been the case when other government policies are changed. Worse, this new draft notification, if cleared would have a dramatic impact on India’s deteriorating air quality in several towns and cities.

Unknown to media and civil society, the Javadekar-led environment ministry issued the “Environmental Supplement Plan" as a draft notification in May 2016, proposing to amend the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006. The draft notification was aiming to legalize violations of environmental law in the garb of this new notification.

Under India’s existing law, there is a clear legal process for grant or rejection of environmental clearances to industries and activities. Project developers/proponents cannot start work unless they have prior permission from the authorities to do so. However, under the draft notification, as it is presently formulated, the ministry can allow project developers/proponents who violate the law to commence construction or expanding operations without approval.

The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 provide for a minimum period of one-and-a-half years of imprisonment for any person or entity which has commenced activities without a valid consent to establish or operate. All these legal safeguards to protect our air and water quality would have been removed if Javadekar had his way. It is, of course, still too early to gauge what the stance of the new minister on all such issues will be.

There is a false perception being created in the media that Javadekar has been rewarded for his work in the environment ministry. Javadekar’s own claims of creating 10 lakh jobs have been challenged several times. If the prime minister was indeed so happy with Javadekar and his pro-industry stance why would he replace him with Dave, who has a clear background in conservation? The media is still not asking this and other hard questions.

That aside, there are three burning issues that the new minister will have to deal with immediately

1. Will he continue with Jadavekar’s legacy to dilute India’s environment laws to favour industry?

2. Will he support the controversial river linking programme given that the water resources ministry has been pushing for it?

3. How will he revamp the image of the environment ministry as a protector of the environment, than an enabler of industry?

One thing is for sure, Dave will have to certainly walk the tightrope to balance the government’s ease of doing business efforts with the mandate of protecting the country’s rich biodiversity. Interesting times ahead for the green ministry.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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