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The minister seems to be in a tearing hurry to change his image as the saviour of all things —including the environment—and is handing out permissions to controversial projects left right and ‘Centre’
Oh how righteousness crumbles in the face of pressure from the high command... and possibly greed... and a government facing a huge deficit.
The environment ministry which was the one shining untainted beacon in the sea of mess that the government has become (2G, Adarsh, now Devas) is now dusting off some of its holier-than-thou sheen, or so it seems.
In a shocking, shocking move, environment minister Jairam Ramesh today gave permission to the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) to divert 595 hectares of forest land for mining iron ore in the West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand, saying that it is crucial for SAIL's future demand of raw material.
CNBC TV 18 said that the environment ministry also admitted that "[The] Chiria decision expedited on upcoming SAIL FPO." This is just downright shameful.
In giving out this order, Jairam Ramesh (who had achieved a demi-god like status, especially with young management graduates and college students for taking industrialists and other ministries which had violated environment norms head on) has rejected the advice of his own Forest Advisory Committee (FAC).
The reason—"broader national interest"—and the importance of these mines to the future of SAIL, a 'Maharatna' public sector company "with a good track record of corporate social responsibility (CSR)" and thus, "deserving of special treatment".
Unbelievable, but true. The FAC had said that Chiria was home to Asia's largest and best sal forests and also an important elephant habitat and that mining in this area could not be allowed.
Overriding these conditions with one sweeping stroke, Mr Ramesh has told the press that "Chiria is essential to the future of SAIL. Over the next 50 years, around 40% of the iron ore requirement of SAIL will be met from the Chiria mines... The existing steel plants at Bokaro, Burnpur, Durgapur and Rourkela will necessarily have to be run from iron ore coming from Chiria, once the mines presently feeding them are depleted in 10-12 years."
Therefore, economic concerns take precedence over environmental ones. Why not disband the environment ministry then, and ask the finance ministry to clear all pending permissions based on whether the project is going to make tonnes of money?
Every trend has a reversal and for now it seems that Jairam's benevolent star is no longer shining over India's hills and dales and has turned into a malevolent one.
Just a few weeks back, the minister had granted forest clearance to South Korean steel major POSCO's iron & steel plant in Jagatsinghpur district of Orissa—even in this case, the FAC had said that this will cause extensive damage and that permission should not be given.
The Saranda forests area is also home to tribal groups like the Ho—of course, now Jairam is singing a completely different tune as far as the destruction of their natural habitat is concerned—he now claims that the mines will create employment opportunities in the area and eventually benefit these tribals—why have rules to protect tribal environments in that case?
Why not just work for the economic uplifting of their lot and do away with their traditional ways once and for all?
There is little doubt about the fact that the minister has changed his tack. He is meeting Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal today—this is his second meeting in three days—and the agenda is to iron out inter-ministerial differences over the controversial No-Go issue.
Last year, the environment ministry classified heavily forested regions into 'Go' and 'No-Go' areas and banned mining in 'No-Go' zones. This had put on hold projects of all three ministries—coal, power and steel—and had led to fierce inter-ministerial rows.
Clearly, Ramesh is trying to rebuild bridges. This process is likely to lead many a forest, sanctuary, and water reservoir to the sacrificial altar.