Green tribunal returns transparency to MoEF work

Jayanti Natarajan had dismantled all transparency after taking charge in 2011

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | March 18, 2013




One of the first major steps that Jayanti Natarajan took after assuming charge of the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) in July 2011 was to dismantle the glass door her predecessor Jairam Ramesh had installed at the ministerial office in the CGO Complex, replacing it with a wooden one. Though one may argue that Natarajan’s action was more environment-friendly, that one step undid all that Ramesh had done to bring transparency into the ministry’s functioning.

Gone were the days when you could open the ministry’s website and instantly come to know of all important decisions taken, along with all relevant documents — all bang on the homepage.

Here is one example how it helped nail the lies. After giving forest clearance for the Posco project in Odisha in December 2009 on the basis of the Odisha government’s ‘compliance’ report, Ramesh suspected something was amiss. In May 2010, he sent a fresh letter to the Odisha government saying that work could be started “only after” the conditions imposed were fulfilled.

Ramesh added a line to say that translated copies of the documents submitted in “Odia”, to show compliance with the Forest Rights Act, was yet to be submitted.

Apparently, Ramesh and his officials couldn’t decipher Odia. But those who do, like yours truly, did and found that the documents in Odia were the minutes of gram sabha meeting setting up village forest committees, which are to accept and process FRA claims. There were no documents to show that FRA claims had been accepted, processed or decided upon.

But by putting these documents out in public domain, Ramesh and his ministry helped find out the wrong compliance report that the Odisha government had given in English, with attached documents in Odia that suggested the exact opposite. The lie was nailed and Ramesh subsequently stopped work.

Now, the homepage on MoEF’s website tells you nothing about the ministry’s decisions. The page carries innocent information like transfer and posting of officials, proposals and guidelines and various official reports of little consequence. If you go into subsections like environment and forest clearances, all you get are the ministry’s orders. That is, if these pages open in the first place.

Second, all relevant documents — including the detailed project report (DPR), minutes of various committees that examined a project, debated and cleared or not cleared a project, on the basis of which these decisions were taken — are missing.

Moreover, those on the environment beat for long say that after Natarajan took over, the ministry officials also stopped interacting with them.

So, one has very little idea about what is going on. That suits the prime minister’s office (PMO), for it is the PMO that replaced Ramesh with Natarajan with a mandate to clear as many projects as possible without creating hurdles.

It is in this backdrop that the recent direction of the national green tribunal (NGT) has to be seen. For the record, NGT has asked MoEF to do three things: (a) put up its orders and all relevant documents regarding environment and forest clearances that it has given on its website within seven days, which should remain for at least 90 days, (b) to maintain public notice boards on its premises, including its regional offices, to display orders of its clearances for a period of at least 30 days, and (c) not to dismiss an appeal against an order on the plea of “limitation of 30 days for challenging clearances” unless the period is counted from the day of effectively communicating the decisions to the public.

All relevant documents, including environmental conditions and safeguards, should form part of the documents thus made public.

NGT also asked the project proponent to (a) submit copies of the environment clearances to heads of local bodies and the relevant state government departments for display on public notice boards, and (b) to publicise the decision in at least two regional papers.

These are good directives necessitated because Natarajan has dismantled transparency and brought back opacity into the functioning of the ministry. Ramesh brought the environment back into the centrestage, Natarajan has effectively removed it from public debate.

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