Development approvals to be fast-tracked in India

25th Jul 2014

Don’t you just hate it when the environment gets in the way of your development plans? So does India, since approving development projects was taking so long that it was suspected of deterring investors.

A discussion among environment ministers and heads of the coal and steel industries last month concluded that the environment would no longer be a “roadblock” to development in India. Environment Minister, Prakash Javadekar, claims that it falls in line with Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s expedited governance model and ensured that quality would not be compromised. The Ministry of Environment had earned a reputation of “roadblock” to development projects and Javadekar seeks to rid the ministry of this label.

Efficiency is certainly an important facet of governance, especially since India has been anything but for decades. Still, major projects deserve a fair assessment of environmental impact when public health concerns may be involved, but Javadekar believes that, “both environment protection and growth can go hand in hand.”

The problem with speed being the primary goal in approving or denying projects is that important consequences are more likely to be overlooked, particularly when there is an incentive to develop and attract investors. Major projects can displace people, emit dangerous chemicals, or affect citizens’ livelihoods. Will the health effects be given fair weight when assessing the environmental costs of such projects?

Where do India’s commitments to the UN’s IPCC come in? Isn’t the world supposed to be going greener for the sake of staving off climate change? It must be remembered that India, to many, is still considered a developing country, and as such, aims to be on par with the “developed” countries of the world. The problem with this is that the developed countries got to where they are today by using the a variety of fossil fuels and methods destructive to the natural environment, whose effects are only now coming to light; i.e. cancer from chemical exposure in the workplace, air pollution, loss of unique habitats, etc.

Yet, some developed countries are now having a hard time prioritizing and financing renewable energy and greener development projects themselves. Sadly, the dire consequences of climate change inaction are likely to adversely affect the less developed countries first.

Certainly, politicians enjoy touting the idea of sustainable development, and that it is possible and necessary for a prosperous future. Yet some of the great ecologists of our time believe the idea of ‘sustainable development’ to be a contradictory in itself, for to them, humans have already developed far too much and should instead be scaling back on such projects. India has a lot to prove to the world, a reputation to improve upon, and if being deemed a “roadblock” led to a complete reorganization of approval methods, aiming to be categorized alongside other “developed” countries will likely take a heavy toll on the natural environment, particularly when one seventh of the entire world’s population is in the mix.

One proposed idea was that of keeping certain forest areas protected from potential exploitation, demarcating “go-no go” zones, but this was dismissed by a Group of Ministers headed by President Pranab Mukherjee, formerly the Finance Minister. Though that decision has disheartened some environmentalists, Mukherjee has high hopes to clean up the Ganges, currently one of the world’s most polluted rivers and also a source of great spiritual significance for Hindus.

Battling climate change is sure to be quite an undertaking for all nations of the world, for it will manifest itself differently everywhere, affecting food prices as well as the magnitude of natural disasters. An Economic Survey published by the Economic Times of India states that El Nino is likely to impact farm production, “The survey listed the major challenges faced by the farm sector, including low crop yields, soil degradation, phased shifting to direct transfer of fertiliser-food subsidies and market distortions that prevent creation of a national market.”

If the new streamlined approval process can improve food security and other issues affecting everyday Indians, it will surely be welcomed with open arms, but only time will tell what is to become collateral damage as a result of the policy.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy

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