Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI: Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh has indicated that he may be bowing to pressure from within the government to tone down his strident protection of the environment at the possible cost of growth objectives.“I cannot be oblivious to the larger development agenda of the government. I cannot perennially be putting spokes in every wheel,” he said, while answering questions on the proposed National Environment Protection Authority (NEPA) at a workshop on Tuesday. Faced with a barrage of criticism from some civil society activists, Mr. Ramesh pointed out that unlike them, he had “multiple constituencies”.

In the recent past, it had become obvious that there were clear differences between “those who want us to move faster on growth and those who want us to be bolder on environment,” he said, adding that “trade-offs will always be there”.

The Minister took a pragmatic line, explaining to NGOs that “the best can be the enemy of the good.” He was responding to Kanchi Kohli of the environmental NGO Kalpavriksh, who pointed out that unless regulatory design was changed, the NEPA would merely inherit the legacy of problems faced by previous agencies tasked with implementing and monitoring environmental law. She suggested that the existing regulatory regime be changed before launching a new institution.

Mr. Ramesh agreed that her concerns were valid, and said the “ideal solution” would be to complete a “regulatory clean-up” before embarking on “institutional restructuring.” However, as he did not face an ideal situation, he had to accomplish what was possible right now. “The changes we bring about must be institutional, not individual…It must outlive Ministers, and become embedded in institutional structure,” he said, justifying his move to change the institutional framework first.

According to the discussion paper that was the basis for the workshop, the NEPA will take over the Ministry's role in issuing and monitoring environmental and coastal regulation zone clearances. It may also share the duty of enforcing clean air and water standards with the Central Pollution Control Board, or the CPCB may be relegated to a scientific arm only.

The Ministry, freed from regulatory responsibilities, would then focus on policy-making, said Mr. Ramesh.

Several NGOs and civil society activists poked holes in the proposal. Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta said that unless the flaws in the existing environmental laws were removed, there was no point in setting up a body like the NEPA. Another lawyer Sanjay Upadhyay said the new framework would create a mind-boggling number of institutions that people may have to appeal to in the effort to get environmental justice.

Chandra Bhushan of the Centre for Science and Environment said that existing institutions such as the CPCB lacked sufficient capacity, the solution was to build them up. He also asked how the NEPA would be assured of any more autonomy and independence from outside influence than the existing system, and warned that a group of technical experts could end up becoming a group of corporate interests.