Activists are calling for the resignation of the new Indian Environment and Forests Minister after his appointment brought the speedy approval or reconsideration of several industrial projects.
In late December 2013, the role of Environment and Forests Minister of India was taken over by the Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas, Mr. Veerappa Moily.
After the exit of Ms. Jayanthi Natarajan from her post as Environment Minister, Moily is now in charge of both Ministries, juggling the interests of fossil fuels and the environment simultaneously.
Moily has moved to give approval from the Environment Ministry on over 70 projects in just 20 days. Moily has said of his intentions to speed up environmental review processes:
I am one who is accustomed to disposing off files by evening. Not even a single file will be taken home and not even a single file will be pending unless it requires another look.
The speed with which he is approving these activities, and the very nature of his responsibilities as both Petroleum and Environment Minister, are drawing criticism and concern.
Activists, led by Greenpeace India, are questioning Moily’s true intent to protect environmental interests.
Samit Aich, Executive Director of Greenpeace India, published an open letter to Moily stating:
The very idea behind existence of the environment ministry is not to give speedy clearance to projects but to safeguard the environment and wildlife. There is a conflict of interest in Moily holding dual charge of environment and petroleum ministries… he should immediately resign as the environment minister.
Moily has also granted approval for Posco, the South Korean steel corporation, to move forward with a major and controversial steel project in Odisha.
The project, which includes a plant that will produce eight million tons of steel per year and a shipping port, have been held up due to environmental concerns since 2005. More recently, the National Green Tribunal, a semi-judicial governmental body, suspended the environmental permitting for the project in 2012.
The Posco steel project has still yet to obtain forest clearance, nor did Moily consult with local communities who would be directly impacted by the project before giving it the go-ahead.
Additionally, as reported in The Hindu on January 8th, several mining and industry projects that were turned down by the previous Ministry because of their proximity to wildlife zones, including tiger and elephant reserves, are now up for reconsideration under Moily.
The proposal for a 700 MW hydropower plant will also be considered, even though the Ministry’s mandate for a cumulative assessment of the plant’s impacts on the river basin has yet to be completed.
On December 31st, Avik Roy drew attention to the circumstances of the Ministry shuffle:
The year 2013 is ending with alarm bells ringing for the environment. For the second time in the last five years, the UPA regime changed the Environment and Forests Minister, possibly buckling under pressure from the industrial lobby. Ironically, this time it is Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Veerappa Moily who has been offered the additional ‘role’ of handling the Environment portfolio. In certain quarters, the exit of his predecessor, Ms Jayanthi Natarajan, is being viewed as a punishment to her for taking a hard stand on green clearances for big infrastructure projects.