New Delhi: Harsh Vardhan, who was holding additional charge of the union environment ministry so far, has finally received full-time charge of the portfolio. The environment ministry sorely needs stability and direction as almost all major forest, wildlife and environment protection related policies are pending for a final shape.
Vardhan is the third environment minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi led National democratic Alliance (NDA) government. He was preceded by Anil Madhav Dave, who died in May 2017, and previously Prakash Javadekar who was made cabinet minister for human resources development last year.
The environment ministry has also got a new minister of state in Mahesh Sharma, who is also minister of state (independent charge) of the culture ministry.
In run-up to May 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Modi had promised to simplify green clearance rules due to repeated complaints by industry that delays in securing clearances were stalling projects and impacting economic growth. Soon after coming to power, the NDA government did just that and undertook a series of changes to ease and simplify rules for green clearances.
However, environmentalists rue that more than three years down the line, major policy decisions for protection and conservation of environment and wildlife are still pending. They also allege that the focus of government has only been on easing norms in favour of industry.
For instance, amendment to India’s environmental laws including the wildlife laws, a new national forest policy, coastal regulation norms, a national environment regulator, final call on Genetically Modified (GM) food crops like GM mustard, forest definition, river interlinking policy and many others are waiting for a final shape.
One of the major pending decisions is India’s new ‘National Forest Policy’ (NFP), which once finalized, will guide India’s forest management for the next 25-30 years. It would be an overarching policy for forest management across the country.
The new NFP will be the third such document after India’s independence, with the first in 1952 followed by the second in 1988. It is also going to be the key document for India to move towards its goal of having its 33% of geographical area under forests. At present, India’s forest and tree cover is 24.16% of its geographical area.
The policy’s rough draft was made public last year but it came under fire on allegations that it weakens forest regulations. Following this, the ministry backtracked, stating that the said draft policy was only a “study".
Since then, extensive consultations have taken place, but the final policy is yet to see the light of the day.
Similarly, extensive discussions have taken place about approving commercialization of GM mustard. A case regarding commercialisation of GM mustard is being heard in the Supreme Court.
“The final decision was not being taken as the environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, was not sure about his continuation in the ministry but with now him becoming a full time minister, we may soon see a final call on the controversial subject," a ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
Environmentalists said the new minister has his task cut out in the remaining tenure of the NDA government.
“Unfortunately, environment policies of late seem to be heavily loaded towards ease of business for the ease of being business, with scant regard for safeguarding environment. India can ill-afford this with its heavily polluted river, air, soil that is taking a toll on our health, productivity," said Prerna Singh Bindra, former member of the National Board for Wildlife.
“Studies indicate that two Indians meet an early death due to air pollution. And even Protected Areas, last of our wildlife refuges are being diverted for highways, dams and other projects. The direction of our environment policy needs to strengthen laws and policy to safeguard our environment, forests and wildlife--for our ecological and economic security," Bindra added.