Jayanthi can begin by putting house in order
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A largely overlooked aspect of the cabinet reshuffle is the survival of Jayanthi Natarajan in the environment ministry. Only a few days earlier, she had put her job at stake with a public revolt against the proposal to create a National Investment Board, something the prime minister himself backed.
There can be no quarrel with the fact that green laws need to be enforced strictly, and that it is up to the environment ministry to approve or reject applications based on objective criteria. Jayanthi's objections to the NIB, however, are based mostly on exaggerated presumptions, going by information that is in the public domain about the proposed body.
The NIB is not meant to overrule, override, dilute environmental laws or make the environment ministry irrelevant. And the view that the NIB would be an institutionalised corporate lobby is probably stretching things a bit too far.
Jayanthi does not need to be told that the NIB has been necessitated by the failure of her ministry to carry out structural and institutional reforms over several years. Many previous ministers have found it convenient — and profitable — to continue with an opaque and centralised appraisal process.
The problem is not with laws, but with the manner in which they are applied. As one minister put it, "there is little application of mind while applying laws". Even environment ministry officials concede that the appraisal process needs an overhaul.
Jayanthi would do well to begin by taking a few small steps. Her ministry, for example, does not even have a basic database on say air or soil quality. So, when a firm cites such data in its assessment reports, there is no way to cross-check. Such a database would put the appraisal process almost on auto-pilot.
Then there is the shortage of manpower. Fewer than 100 people, including experts, appraise and monitor thousands of project applications though at least 500 are needed to make the process more transparent and efficient. None of the regional offices of the Central Pollution Control Boards have laboratories.
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