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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

There is also the fallacious notion that private enterprise making reasonable, not obscene, profits is incompatible with public purpose. How so? Can public enterprise be the sole repository of public purpose notwithstanding sick units, hidden preferences and feather-bedding in some cases?

Finding a New Balance

Environmental concerns are important and cannot be wished away, but “the environment cannot be protected by perpetuating poverty”.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 13 September, 2010

The Prime Minister has reminded the nation that there has to be “a new (and optimal) balance” between the environment and industry. Environmental concerns are important and cannot be wished away, but “the environment cannot be protected by perpetuating poverty”. That theorem extends to tribal welfare. Sonia Gandhi said much the same thing a day later. The caution is timely following huge developmental, income and employment opportunity delays on the basis of renewed environmental and forest reviews after preliminary clearance on grounds known at the inception.

There is also the fallacious notion that private enterprise making reasonable, not obscene, profits is incompatible with public purpose. How so? Can public enterprise be the sole repository of public purpose notwithstanding sick units, hidden preferences and feather-bedding in some cases? The controversies surrounding the cancellation or review of project clearances revolve around issues of land acquisition, compensation, tribal rights, R&R norms, stakeholder participation, forest, wildlife and other environmental concerns, royalty rates and so forth. These are not unimportant matters but cannot override larger, longer term community and social benefits that make for good governance.

The Supreme Court in the UP Taj Expressway case has upheld “the right to development of the millions who will be benefited by the road, as against the human rights of 35 (landowning) petitioners”. Although the road is to be executed by a private agency on a 36 year BOT contract, the Court held that it satisfied a public purpose. It found that delay owing to prolonged litigation had resulted in five-fold cost escalation, not counting the loss of forgone benefits over wasted years. Long delays lead to encroachments, changes in the number of affected people, latter-day claimants and interlopers drawn to a honey-pot. Higher compensation to a second round of hard-to-get land sellers alienates the original sellers and whets the greed of remaining holdouts, sometimes with political and rival interests coming into play. It was reported last week that those farmers most vociferous in demanding higher compensation from the UP Government for the Taj Expressway interchange and township scheme were, after its cancellation, now equally vociferous in protesting this decision as they feared the loss of the golden egg earlier offered them!

The moral is that one has to beware of humbug, politics and blackmail on the part of those seeking a transfer from the larger community to a few individual pockets of unearned increments and rents derived from them. The whole procedure of land acquisition is outdated, tardy and based on hopelessly inadequate and inaccurate land titles (a basic problem that is only now beginning to be addressed). This is one reason – apart from the hold-out problem – that has often led private parties to seek state assistance to get land through exercise of eminent domain. The basic yardstick must be fairness and, where disputed, left for courts to decide on broad and well defined contours of public policy which are presently confused and arbitrary.

Thus it is that initial clearances, though linked to certain conditionalities, are suddenly revoked down the road as laws are changed or new conditions imposed. The entire basis of the Narmada R&R, as laid out by the Narmada Waters Dispute Tribunal after years of inter-state argument, was suddenly undermined by the 1980 Forest Conservation Act and subsequent World Bank conditionalities. The POSCO steel plant clearance in Orissa has been put on hold, like the Vedanta Aluminum Ltd mining and refinery project, after initial serial clearances because the subsequent (2008) Forest Rights Act stipulates certain processes and outcomes that must be satisfied. These back and forth procedures heighten uncertainty and call for rationalization through an inter-departmental (Central and State) clearance agency and a special fast-tract adjudicatory mechanism. Time is a huge economic and welfare resource. The destitute need succour and hope today not sometime in the indeterminate future.

The Coal Ministry has been among the latest to cry foul. The Government had announced a policy promise of “electricity for all” by 2017, towards which coal-based thermal units were to contribute an additional 125,000 MW of energy. However, the Ministry of Forest and Environment’s classification of forests on the basis of crown cover into no-go and may-go areas for coal mining has, among other factors, caused massive delays in implementation. The 2013-14 shortfall in coal production is officially estimated to be of the order of 200 million tonnes as large areas cannot be mined or clearances are held up. 155 coal blocks in nine coalfields in no-go areas could produce 600 mt per annum. The Coal Ministry complains that whereas the MoEF stipulates mine clearance in 150 days, it actually takes between three to five years, with proposals having to move across 34 desks. Elephant corridors are sometimes pleaded and why not? But elephants too can be persuaded to take a somewhat longer walk without being any the worse for it.

The Coal Ministry’s figures are telling. India’s coal deposits cover no more than 0.54 per cent of the country’s land mass. Less than a third of this is forested. Further, the Ministry is prepared to ensure that mines are reclaimed after the coal is won and that coal companies set aside the cost of this in escrow. Compensatory afforestation is another tried method of extending tree cover and introducing or augmenting wild life in new areas.

Cut to another tragic story. The MoEF is planning to review protests against dams in Arunachal. Some projects in Sikkim, Himachal and Uttrakhand have already been embargoed partly because run-of-river schemes allegedly dry up the river between the points of diversion and return of tailrace waters to the stream. This can surely be taken care of by stipulating minimal below-the-dam ecological releases to supplement intervening free flowing discharges into the river. But the latest objections are two-fold and contrary. Assam pleads danger in the Lower Subansiri (2000 MW) and Lower Siang (1500 MW) dams in Arunachal. The former was cleared by the Supreme Court after prolonged PIL hearings under the Forest Conservation Act with most onerous conditionalities. These curiously cause more displacement than originally sought to be ameliorated and inexplicably bar further storage upstream of this terminal dam. However, some in Assam fear a dam-break on account of high seismicity while others plead that these dams will not sufficiently moderate floods in Assam for lack of an adequate flood cushion, thus violating the State’s lower riparian rights.

The seismicity argument is over-pitched as risk of dam failure can be obviated by defensive measures incorporated in the design and materials used in the construction of the structure. This argument was gone over backwards and forwards in case of the Tehri dam 30 years ago. Thereafter it survived the Uttarkashi quake unharmed. Environmental objections to high dams have blocked exploitation of the Northeast’s huge energy potential. This issue needs to be revisited in the light of climate change.

There has been unconscionable delay in moving forward on many fronts. The PM’s call should signal a new start.

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