Former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan’s letter to Sonia Gandhi, leaked on Friday, has led to the question whether the UPA government targeted select projects to strictly impose environmental laws. The other big question would be: Were there also projects that got clearances under political pressure, overruling environmental concerns?
Evidence in the public domain suggests the answer to both questions is yes. Government data also show that more than 90 per cent of the projects that came before the environment ministry during the UPA-I and II regimes for (environment and forests) clearances were eventually given the nod. The forest area of rejected proposals adds up to less than 1 per cent of the forest area that was given away to industry during the same period.
But did these ‘requests’ to the environment minister pour in only from Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi in favour or against projects? Available evidence from government records shows that other party leaders and ministers in the UPA also tried to influence decisions, but mostly in favour of particular projects and other times asking for relief for entire sectors or wholesale changes of regulations easing green norms. This included the Prime Minister’s office under Manmohan Singh. Natarajan admitted as much in an interview with Business Standard.
She claims that the Gandhis raised specific cases with her and asked her to attend to these with special focus.
Members of Parliament from across parties and ministers writing to the environment minister for projects is common practice. Natarajan says in her tenure people and Cabinet colleagues did write to her 'perhaps pursuing projects in their constituencies'. Records show that was not necessarily the case at all times.
The two prominent cases that Natarajan mentions that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi intervened in, and where the political affinity of the project developers to the BJP is common knowledge, are Nirma's 1.91 MTPA cement plant Bhavnagar and Adani's multi-purpose Mundra port and SEZ project. In both cases the UPA government went out of the way to question the environmental integrity of the projects.
But there are also cases where the UPA under various environment ministers took dubious decisions favouring projects - in some cases it was rapped on the knuckles by courts for doing so. One of these cases was during Jairam Ramesh's time, when he overruled statutory experts to clear coal blocks in the dense Hasdeo Arand forests of Chhattisgarh. The NGT eventually cancelled the clearance with scathing comments about the disregard for expert advice without application of mind by the then minister.
In Natarajan's tenure too Athena's Demwe hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh got a clearance. She overruled the entire panel of experts on the National Wildlife Board who had unanimously rejected the project.
The Adani multi-purpose Mundra port and SEZ first landed in trouble with the environment ministry in 2010 with Jairam Ramesh in the saddle. In the meanwhile, the Gujarat state high court had also found illegalities in the projects. In 2012 the environment ministry, under Jayanthi Natarajan, set up a committee under Sunita Narain to review the entire project. It found gross violations and fined the company Rs 200 crore. But in January 2014 the Supreme Court granted some relief to the company and the NDA government eventually granted the environmental clearance that the projects were working without illegally earlier.
The other prominent case that Natarajan mentions is Vedanta's mining of Niyamgiri hills in Odisha. It was Jairam Ramesh who rejected the mining in the first place as Rahul Gandhi went to the site promising to protect the tribal land. The rejection was challenged before the Supreme Court. The apex court held that the tribal gram sabha would have to give consent to the project under laws governing Schedule V areas of the country and the Forest Rights Act. The gram sabhas rejected the case and Natarajan had to cancel the project consequently as required by the apex court judgment.
But were Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi the only ones writing to Natarajan and other environment ministers with specific views on projects? No. There is a large trail of documentary proof from government records that ministers in the UPA cabinet and senior leaders of Congress and its allies also wrote in favour of particular projects as well as policy changes. Some did it in their personal capacity as Members of Parliament and others did so as heads of groups of ministers or ministers in charge of respective ministries.
Ramesh, in one instance, noted it so in his spoken orders, naming Digvijay Singh as well as the PMO's references, while giving the go-ahead to stalled construction work at the Maheshwar Hydro Power Project in Madhya Pradesh's Maheshwar dam. In another case, Natarajan put it on record in internal notes that she was clearing the controversial Mahan coal project in Madhya Pradesh against her judgement and expert advice, as ordered by the group of ministers headed by the then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee.
There is a trail of documents that shows that the PMO under Manmohan Singh also stepped in, tracking individual projects, asking for specific changes to the laws and regulations - something the PMO has done under Narendra Modi too in the short while it has been in power.
Two specific sectoral regulations where the UPA saw different arms of the government go at each other was the no-go policy for mining and the regulations over GM crop trials. It involved senior ministers, the PMO and the environment ministry all at loggerheads.
The retired director general of forests (the senior-most rank in the Indian Forest Service) P J Dilip Kumar notes: The clearance rejections caused bitter complaints that the forest clearance process was arbitrary, unpredictable and subjective, and had no scientific basis. Obviously, there was no such breast-beating as long as the environment ministry was docilely passing all projects." He was serving as the DG during Jairam Ramesh's tenure when the advice of his expert committee was overruled in favour of projects at times.