Against developmental fundamentalism

In the ‘development versus environment’ debate, the demand is always for a compromise on environmental concerns, never for a moderation of developmental activities

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:23 pm IST

Published - May 30, 2014 02:10 am IST

There is hope in the air: years of corruption, ‘policy paralysis’ and a non-functioning government are gone and there is a forceful, efficient, decisive leader at the helm. However, while joining in the national mood of hope and expectation, may one add a word of caution about the current emphasis on “quick project clearances”? The argument is that “green clearances” are responsible for delaying large projects and that the process should be made fast and easy.

Delays in project clearances can arise from several causes: plain inefficiency in the functioning of the clearance agency, poor project formulation necessitating a demand to reformulate the project, inadequate information necessitating a number of queries and demands for clarifications and additional material, a prolonged debate between the project proponents and the examining agency in those cases where a negative decision seems likely and so on. While delays caused by inefficiency can and should be eliminated, other delays are not really delays if they serve a useful purpose. The examination of projects that are likely to have serious environmental, social and human impacts, and demand heavy investments, cannot be rushed through. No more than the necessary time should be taken, but equally, not less than the necessary time must be taken. To cut that short would be to turn the entire clearance process into a mockery.

Giving clearances to projects Why are “green clearances” in particular blamed for delays? The reason is that most project proponents and the ministries concerned regard a clearance under the Environment (Protection) Act a tiresome formality. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is unpopular with the so-called ‘developmental’ ministries; it is regarded as a ‘negative’ force that impedes ‘development.’ A >development-environment dichotomy is posited, with the former being accorded primacy and the latter relegated to a secondary position.

The holders of the “primacy of development” argument would say: “The protection of the environment is important, but not at the cost of development.” Let us reverse that proposition: can we really have development at the cost of the environment? When we have destroyed all aquifers, turned all rivers into sewers, denuded all forests and reduced bio-diversity drastically, what development can there be? Faced with that question, the advocates of development might say: “Let us be moderate; let us not go overboard and become eco-fundamentalists.” What can be more basic than our habitat, our water and the air? Profound concern about them should not be deprecated as fundamentalism. What we have in fact had is developmental fundamentalism, accompanied by an angry impatience with environmental concerns.

Dare one hope that the negative attitude to environmental concerns will not continue in the new government? In the new government, the environment ministry is headed not by a Cabinet minister, but by a Minister of State with independent charge, Prakash Javadekar. He is reported to have said that the environment ministry will not be obstructionist. That is a revealing statement. It implies that any minister who implements the Environment (Protection) Act faithfully and effectively is being obstructionist and that he or she should moderate the implementation to avoid being so. It is also a defensive statement seeking to reassure everyone that he will try and not trouble anyone. Why does such a reassurance become necessary? The reason is that the Act seriously tries to protect the environment and contains provisions for the purpose, which means that if rigorously implemented, it is bound to bite in some cases. It follows that the bland statement often heard that there need be no conflict between the environment and development is not true. An effort needs to be made to reconcile the requirements of the Act and the >demands of development , and it will not be an easy effort.

It is in that context that the advocates of development generally call for a ‘balancing’ of environment and development. ‘Balancing’ implies action on both sides, but in the ‘development versus environment’ debate, the demand is always for a compromise on environmental concerns, never for a moderation of developmental activities. However, perhaps one is being unduly alarmist. One hopes that the Modi government will be as earnest about environmental and ecological concerns as about what goes in the name of development. One also hopes that there will be an agonising reappraisal of what constitutes true development.

Another source of worry is in relation to land acquisition, displacement and rehabilitation. Many feel that the Rehabilitation Act of 2013 is deficient in several respects, but it offers some limited protection against unfair alienation of agricultural land, and a modest rehabilitation provision. In the drive for the quick implementation of ‘developmental’ projects, one hopes that the government will not be unduly influenced by the neoliberal economic view — that this act is a serious impediment to development.

Restoring the Ganga Reports to the effect that the new government proposes to restore the Ganga to its pristine condition are encouraging, but one must hope that it will not be a cosmetic exercise like the ‘revival’ of the Sabarmati in Gujarat. More disturbing is the fact that >during his election campaign , the present Prime Minister talked about the >Inter-Linking of Rivers Project , a controversial project. That the Prime Minister is predisposed in favour of the project is hardly reassuring, and one fervently hopes that he will study the weighty objections that many critics have raised before taking a decision on the project. It seems strange to want to restore the Ganga and at the same time undertake a project that will do great harm to several other rivers.

One shares the widespread hope that a single-party majority and a decisive Prime Minister will mark a new beginning. The Prime Minister’s statement — “Let us together dream of a strong, developed and inclusive India” — needs to be expanded to include ecological sustainability and harmony, not only between groups, States and countries, but also between humanity and Nature.

(Ramaswamy R. Iyer is a former Secretary, Water Resources, Government of India.)

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