The Finance Ministry proposal to create a National Investment Board with extraordinary authority to supersede individual ministries and decide the fate of expensive infrastructure projects is a retrograde measure that strikes at the root of democratic governance. The basic tenets of all law-making include public participation, equity and justice, more so when it comes to the environment and welfare. India’s laws on protection of the environment, forests, wildlife and tribal welfare enshrine these principles, and the country has been centre-staging them when negotiating international treaties and protocols. But a brazen attempt is being made using the fig leaf of ‘delays’ in grant of regulatory approvals and clearances to negate all this and strip individual ministries of their lawful role, and to transfer their decision-making powers to an NIB. The Ministry of Environment and Forests, which is cast by industry as the villain when it comes to project clearances, is justified in opposing this misadventure. The stated objective of forming an NIB chaired by the Prime Minister, under the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961, is to prescribe time limits for approvals. Its functions, however, are far-reaching and would seriously erode the powers and autonomy of individual ministries. Their procedures and decisions will become subject to review by an investment-focused superior entity, with predictable consequences.
For nearly a decade now, the MoEF has been under pressure to dilute its mandatory systems in order to facilitate speedy regulatory clearances. After many decisions made on the basis of faulty Environment Impact Assessments — commissioned by project promoters themselves — the Ministry has started looking at its shortcomings. Two years ago, Jairam Ramesh, who was Minister at the time, said about the rejection of Vedanta’s mining proposal for Niyamgiri in Orissa, that his Ministry could not abdicate its responsibility of enforcing laws passed by Parliament. His successor, Jayanthi Natarajan, has done well to now stand up to the pressure to constitute the NIB. Taking the long view, Board proponents would do well to remember that they seek to exploit a stock of invaluable, limited natural capital. There is, thus, a need to assess the sustainability of development, and not be guided solely by narrow measures of economic performance. Considering the authoritarian character that an all-powerful committee will inevitably acquire, it would be prudent for the Cabinet to give up the NIB proposal. It can achieve better outcomes by focusing on administrative elements within ministries, and introducing accountability in project approvals.