After the election, when Prakash Javadekar became the minister, he promised to find cases of “extraneous influence" involved in green clearances given during Natarajan’s tenure. Two years on, Javadekar says the government has decided against such a move but promised to act if someone comes up with concrete information.
He gave himself a pat on the back for simplifying green clearance procedures and promised to focus on compliance of green norms in the remaining three years. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What are the major things that you have done to change the image of the environment ministry?
The ministry was known as the bottleneck ministry. But we have streamlined through policies, transparent process, standardization and decentralization. Therefore, the average period for environmental approval, which was 600 days, has come down to 190 days and I want to bring it down to 100 days.
We achieved this through policy decisions like giving general approval to defence infrastructure and border roads. But there have been no concessions in environmental conditions (preconditions for giving green clearances) as afforestation still has to be done and all norms are to be observed. Secondly, all applications are now online, which has empowered project proponents to track the files.
We have also standardized two major things—terms of reference and housing sector environmental clearance norms. We have also decentralized mining of minor minerals and sand. So things are moving. By making processes transparent, by standardization, by policy decisions, this has become a facilitating ministry.
Monitoring, an important role of the ministry, has been a weak area.
The earlier law was a weak law where the violation punishment was just ₹ 1 lakh. So every firm was ready to accept the guilt of violation. Now we are coming up with a new violation notification which will deal with violations on a case-by-case basis, strictly mapping the environment degradation they have caused. More importantly, we are coming up with civil penalties. That is the bill which will actually become a major deterrent and impose heavy penalties. So, I want to make compliance easy and violation costly.
Despite simplifying green clearance procedures, the final decisions on nearly all major policies in your ministry are pending. How do you respond to that criticism?
A 3,500 sq. km forest cover increase is not a small achievement. Also Lok Sabha has passed the CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) bill and I am sure Rajya Sabha will also pass it in the monsoon session. This will unleash ₹ 42,000 crore for more aggressive afforestation. We have tightened pollution emission norms for 20 industries. We are now also using technology to do better monitoring. This is revolution. Also, we have achieved tremendous success in climate change. Just compare with Durban (UN climate change conference in 2011)—from being a naysayer, India now is a leader.
But many major policy decisions like forest definition, violate-inviolate and appointment of chairman of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) are pending...
Forest definition will go to court immediately after the court’s vacation. It is ready. It will ensure no new private lands (will be declared as forest). We are sending the definition. Violate-Inviolate is, however, not on the table. The proposal has not come to me and whenever it comes, I will take decisions.
CPCB will happen. See, we advertised thrice and interviewed twice. But we didn’t get good people. There are good people but they are not ready to come at additional secretary-level salary. They are happy to be consultants but not ready to come for the job. We will have a new CPCB chairman in three months.
Many policy decisions are stuck in court for want of your ministry’s final view. It was even said that the environment ministry is run by courts. What are you doing about that?
On the other hand, I am very happy and thankful to the courts. Earlier NBWL (National Board for Wildlife) decisions needed ratification by the Supreme Court (SC), for which the court used to ask CEC (central empowered committee). Now SC has said that NBWL decision is final and no ratification by the court is necessary. For timber movement in the North-East, SC has given power, not to CEC but to the ministry.
So we have actually got back powers from SC and we will get remaining powers also. I believe if you work honestly, transparently and in the public interest, the courts also understand. Ultimately, the courts know the executive has to function.
You have repeatedly drawn comparisons between the work of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the National Democratic Alliance. How is your government different from the UPA?
In the last two years, I have never criticized previous rulers. I have a lot of things to say but I want to do my work. The difference is by our actions like what we are doing for Ganga. In Ganga, “black liquor" (a by-product of the process that transforms wood into pulp to make paper) is not flowing and we are monitoring over 700 industrial units. Thirty per cent pollution is down. Our government has taken the decision to advance BS VI emission norms by April 2020, which will reduce vehicular pollution by 90%.
When you came to power, you promised to seek a report on alleged wrong decisions taken by the previous government.
I have not gone into that mud digging and going through earlier files because I thought that we should concentrate on governance…Modiji’s vision is to give good governance. If somebody gives me concrete information, then we will definitely look into it. I said that we will look into those files but actually we didn’t pursue that.
You had promised to overhaul India’s environmental laws. But the process has seen no progress for over a year now.
We are not tinkering with all the laws. We are doing the CAMPA bill first and then second is the civil penalty bill. Then we will give electronic data (recorded by 24x7 real-time monitoring) the value of legal evidence. So, there can be small amendments likes that. On changing all laws, there has to be more discussion, more studies and more comments. We will do that. We have a system in place in two years, and in the next three years our target is compliance, building capacities and creating institutions. That is the real service to the nation.
While there has been a lot of emphasis on doing away with bottlenecks in green clearances, there has not been any great movement on policies in the forest and wildlife sectors.
We will definitely review and look into the forest policy. We are also creating a new policy towards creating a tree cover outside forests because we have only 21% of forest land and we have to go to 33% of forest cover (the government’s target). How will it happen unless we grow tree cover outside the forest land. Why are farmers not planting trees? Because he fears that the forest department will not allow him to cut the trees. That fear has to go.
Policy decision to regulate development in India’s coastal areas— facing severe erosion—has not happened. A report by an expert committee is pending with you for over a year now. It is said that there is huge pressure from the Maharashtra real estate lobby against this. Please respond to these allegations.
Our mandate is to improve coastal ecology. Now it (Shailesh Nayak committee report on coastal management) will go for final process and in the next three months it will be done. Now a CRZ (coastal regulation zone) review will be done. A policy decision will be taken in public interest and in the interest of coastal ecology.
Allowing commercialization of genetically modified (GM) crops has been opposed by groups, including RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh)-affiliated groups, though the government has been backing GM crops. How do you plan to go ahead?
There are people in favour of it and against it. So we believe in dialogue and that is what we are doing.
You talk of greater transparency but minutes of meetings of the genetic engineering approval committee that clears trials of GM crops are made public only under pressure of courts or the Central Information Commission.
We are not under pressure. We are doing whatever is legally required. I will definitely address it.
PM Narendra Modi championed the cause of climate justice and sustainable consumption. Are we looking at some programme to promote it?
We will make a big public campaign of sustainable and low carbon lifestyle. It’s a continuous process. We will include that as a part of education also. We will coordinate with the human resource developement ministry for this.