Was Prakash Javadekar a terrible environment minister?
The good, the bad and the ugly of his questionable stint.
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If one has to identify the biggest winner from the recent Cabinet reshuffle, it would distinctly be Prakash Javadekar. Not only is he the only Minister of State to secure an elevation to cabinet rank, he also landed the much prized catch of HRD ministry.
As Javadekar moves out of the environment ministry, he leaves behind a legacy that is making industries sad at losing a man who was all ears to their concerns.
The environment lobby, on the other hand, is in delight, as they perceive the newly appointed Union environment minister to be having his heart in the right side, and being much more invested in environmental conservation than Javadekar. Anil Madhav Dave has a known history of environmental activism - working on Narmada conservation and being part of the parliamentary standing committee on environment.
In fact, such is the strained relation between certain environmentalists and Javadekar that they went to the extent of terming him as the "worst ever environment minister" India had seen.
So now that Javadekar's eventful reign at the helm of the environment ministry has come to a close, it is an opportune moment to meaningfully examine if there is any grain of truth to the allegations of him being the worst ever environment minister.
We bring you the good, the bad and the ugly from Javadekar's controversial stint at this significant ministry.
A. Environment ministry stopped being a drag on industrial growth
Before Javadekar stepped into the shoes of the environment minister, his ministry inspired much revulsion from industries for having turned into a spoke in the wheel. Though a few environmentalists, in their mistaken Luddite view expressed glee at the high-handed way in which the ministry, whether under Jairam Ramesh or Jayanti Natarajan of the UPA, ran a reign of terror through the oft-maligned industries, making industrialisation a casualty, was surely no way of conserving the environment.
So Javadekar had his task cut out. To his credit, he has been very successful in soothing the concerns of industries and hence did his bit in restoring investors' confidence.
This he did by setting up a single window online system for forest, wildlife and forest clearance mechanism with provisions for applying as well as keeping track of the stage of the process online itself. This made the process much more transparent, hassle-free and time bound.
His decentralisation push also speeded up the process and overtime would lead to more benefits on this count. The intent of the minister also made a difference as it sent a signal down the line that the ministry could no longer be a drag on industrial growth.
There was also no notable charge of graft (apart from Javadekar having misused his power of clearance to force a company that he gave clearance to provide him a fuel guzzling SUV), which was a huge relief from the days when the allegations of "Jayanti tax" dominated.
So if viewed purely from the perspective of furthering the ease of business, Javadekar did perform well.
However, it must be noted that merely promoting industrial growth is not the aim of an environment ministry or else we would have no need of such an institution. While unnecessarily blocking clearances could be a hassle, but the very fact that such a clearance is required so as not to allow blind, unbalanced growth to overshadow holistic development, is the cornerstone of the environment ministry.
But did Javadekar do justice to that crucial aspect of his previous responsibility?As former environment minister, Prakash Javadekar has quite a few questions to answer.
B. Improved pollution standards and emissions monitoring system
On the front of environment conservation, Javadekar made a positive impact by instituting improved pollution standards and requiring continuous emission monitoring system for 17 highly polluting industries.
The pollution standards for coal-based power plants have been revised and made stringent after a decade. In addition, a new notification on fly ash utilisation goes a long way in ensuring fly ash is used in bricks, cements and road making, thereby incentivising tapping of fly ash (as the commercial application of fly ash would increase) and reducing its presence in environment.
In other industrial sectors such as pulp and paper, iron and steel, fertiliser, cement, sugar, etc, the ministry has tightened pollution standards. There is also a palpable increase in focus on curtailing water pollution. Most of the industries the pollution standards of which have been revised, have also been mandated to reuse and recycle wastewater.
The 17 categories of highly polluting industries are now required install continuous emissions monitoring systems (CEMS). If implemented well, this technology-enabled monitoring system would improve pollution enforcement from these industries significantly.
A. Climate change negotiations weakened developing world's position
Javadekar led India in the crucial Paris climate change negotiations. But the delegation compromised India's (and developing world's) interest on some important fronts.
There is no legally binding obligation on the developed world to enhance mitigation targets and increase climate finance. Even the non-enforceable commitment of climate finance of 100 billion dollar by the developed world is too meagre too make any real difference.
The nature of finance, its source, accounting and distribution have not been resolved. Also, there was no provision for compensating for the loss and damage under American pressure.
The principle of equity, though incorporated in name, has been given a quiet burial legally. For all practical purposes, Javadekar failed to secure India's interests despite all the noise he made.
But given India's limited heft, when staked against the mega pressure from the developed world, only partial blame can be assigned to Javadekar personally for failing to safeguard India's interests.
B. Controversial wetland regulation
The Draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016, which will replace the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules of 2010, seeks to give power to the states to decide what they must do with their wetlands. This includes deciding which wetlands should be protected and what activities should be allowed or regulated.
But leaving the wetlands conservation vulnerable to local push and pulls , without any technical safeguard, is not the best template for protecting wetlands which are considered the most imperilled natural ecosystem in the world.
The draft regulation does away with the Central Wetland Regulatory Authority, which was hitherto entrusted with protecting wetlands. The draft regulation also doesn't contain any ecological criteria to identify wetlands, thus leaving the question of what comprises a wetland wide open.
It deletes section on the protection of wetland and the interpretation of harmful activities which require regulations.
At a time when our mindless exploitation of water bodies and killing of wetland have led to repeated disasters - floods in Uttarakhand, Kashmir and Chennai were all linked to a contempt for environmental safeguards - it was perplexing to see that the environment ministry weakened the wetland protection further.
A. Insufficient strengthening of enforcement capacity
The oft-repeated complaint of delay in obtaining environment clearance is primarily due to the absence of sufficient enforcement capacity. Those entrusted with the task of clearance are too overburdened too do their job in a time-bound manner without compromising our environment.
So the result is that neither were the clearances given in time, nor were the norms for environmental protection sufficiently enforced leaving India's environment poorer.
But Javadekar choose not to address this. He didn't focus on raising enforcement capacity but merely chose to turn his ministry into a facilitator of industries endangering its prime role of protecting nature from corporate ravages.
B. Turning the National Wildlife Board into a rubber stamp
The National Wildlife Board, the highest advisory body for wildlife has been systematically weakened and turned into a puppet. After the NDA came to power, the NWB was reconstituted without the required presence of the civil society.
This prompted the Supreme Court to make very harsh observations prompting the centre to reconstitute the NWB. Also, it cleared over 130 projects without any due scrutiny, that too in a single meeting. These were later stayed by the courts.
The approach of government toward NWB is disturbing as it is one of the most important institutions which is entrusted with protecting wildlife. Weakening such critical institutions and stuffing them with yes men cannot be the way forward.
Javadekar is squarely to be blamed for the regressive manner in which he mishandled the NWB.
C. Undermined people's participation
Environment ministry under Javadekar diluted the consultation process in the coal mining sector by providing exemptions. More significantly, he pushed for relaxation of the approval of tribal communities under FRA in case of projects on tribal forest lands.
This was also seen in the way a Gautam Adani-led project in Chhattisgarh was pushed by the environment ministry under Javadekar, despite the vociferous opposition from the affected tribals. This not just reduced safeguards against potential harm to local environment, but, by snatching away their voice, it also disempowered the people who were most impacted by such projects.
D. Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the green lungs of Mumbai, under threat
A dedicated freight corridor, a pet project of the prime minister, has been approved to pass through Sanjay Gandhi National Park. NWB constituted by Javadekar didn't find any objection to the project.
The project will run through the park leading to loss of dense forests. It will put many wild animals at risk and also fragment the park. This will overtime rob Mumbai of its green lung.
But again in this case, Javadekar failed to find a balance between the conservation and development needs.
E. Allowing large-scale killings of animals
In India, many species of wildlife animals are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act. However, if a species is classified as a "vermin", these protections can be lifted, allowing people to cull (kill) a large number of these animals in the short term.
Javadekar used this power to declare many a species as a vermin, including wild boars, monkeys and the Nilgai. This was the only solution that the Union minister of environment could find to avoid human animal conflict.
It was disturbing at many levels.
There was no scientific study done to assess the population problem and look for alternative solutions. It made animals pay the price for a manmade problem, as it is us who have cleared the forests which provided food and shelter to these animals and out of desperation and sheer hunger do they stray into human settlements.
Also, allowing reckless killing of some species endanger other species too and threaten the entire ecosystem's stability. It begs the question as to why were less lethal solutions such as fencing not exhausted first instead of rushing to kill the animals, which should have been resorted to only if there was nothing else left to do.
F. Political appeasement in Jallikattu controversy
The same disregard for animal welfare was on display when, in order to appease the Tamil Nadu voters, Jallikattu - a popular bull taming sport, which is internationally decried for the cruelty it causes to the animals, was allowed by a notification by environment ministry even after the courts banned it.
The court again stepped in and quashed the regressive notification. The ministry's insistence on overlooking the cruelty to the bulls was a clear case wherein appeasing the voter through preserving backward practices was prioritised over the duty to protect wildlife.
G. Weakening of environment impact assessment
Javadekar tenure also saw other controversies such as weakening of environment impact assessment regime in the new proposals, controversy regarding recommendation to reduce "no developmental zone" in coastal areas via the new coastal norms, the criticism of the TSR Subramanian committee set up to review India's six environmental laws, which was accused of ignoring environment and only focusing on easy clearance, among others.
All in all, an objective assessment of Javadekar's tenure does make one note that despite certain positive steps, his was a term marked largely by undermining of environmental safeguards, weakening of people's participation and a clear subordination of the most important aim of protecting the environment to that of facilitating reckless industrial growth.
Viewed purely from perspective of safeguarding India's sensitive environment, Prakash Javadekar does come across as the worst green minister in a long while.