Rescuing development from environment czars

India in recent years has shielded the development agenda from the clutches of professional environmental agitators

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a span of a week unveiled two showcase development projects-the Deoghar International Airport and the Bundelkhand Expressway. They are worth a closer look, because the Prime Minister had laid their foundation stones and also inaugurated them within a few years. This is significant for the fact that the well-oiled machinery of NGOs, claiming to be sole custodian of the environment, failed to slow down the Prime Minister.

For decades, the people in Deoghar aspired for better connectivity. The holy town of Baba Baidyanath is visited by millions of pilgrims each year during the ‘Shravan’ month. Besides, Deoghar is a hub of the medium and small scale industries (MSME), as Madhupur and Jagdishpur on its outskirts are home to several industries, while also being home to Dabur. This part of Jharkhand could have become another Jamshedpur if the previous Congress government had the vision to provide connectivity. But they couldn’t do so, because the environment czars drafted their policies and dictated their actions.

The foundation stone for the Bundelkhand Expressway was laid by the Prime Minister in February 2020. In less than 29 months, the 296-km four-lane expressway built at a cost of Rs 14,850 crore was dedicated to the nation by the Prime Minister. Bundelkhand region is known to be the most backward parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and the UPA government and the Planning Commission spent crores of rupees to work out development plans for the region, which yielded no results.

The Bundelkhand Expressway along with the Defence Corridor in the Bundelkhand region are definitive attempts by the Modi government to bring a backward region to the forefront of progress. The region, known for perennial water shortage which forces the people to migrate, will have alternative sources of livelihoods.

Thus, the Deoghar International Airport and the Bundelkhand Expressway mark the Modi government’s clear victory against the caucus of the environmental NGOs, which checked the progress of the nation by holding back land acquisition and setting up of industries by incessantly crying about environment damage.

This is in departure from the incidents of the recent past, e.g. when the Tata Nano project had to be shifted out of West Bengal. Reports revealed that while the project work was in full swing and agitations proving ineffective, the Naxalite faction of the ‘Save Singur Farmland Committee’ resorted to threats and violence against the locals who had voluntarily sold land for the project or were getting involved in the construction of the fencing. Reports also revealed that the police were receiving 12 complaints daily from the locals.

West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and a few other states still remain in the strong groups of the environment NGOs, who continue to block big ticket projects, which could give India a quantum jump in quick time. The proposed steel manufacturing plant of JSW Steel Ltd to be set up across 1173.58 hectares of land spread across the three villages of Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujang about 60 kilometres from the Odisha capital Bhubaneswar, which is expected to manufacture 13.2 million tonnes per annum of steel, is also facing the text-book protest. Jagatsinghpur SP Akhileswar Singh said police had to act as the villagers started throwing urine on them and some even attacked the police with razors. While opposing the setting up of the plant, the Lok Shakti Abhiyan leader claimed that the construction in the coastal area is a threat to the environment.

Another project facing protests is Vedanta’s plan to build another copper smelter in Therkuveerapandiyapuram village In Tamil Nadu to double the company’s total production in Thoothukudi from 400,000 tonnes to 800,000 tonnes a year and making it the second biggest in the world. The protests are spearheaded by the residents of Kumarettiyapuram village, which is within 200 m of the proposed plant. The shutdown of the plant affected as many as 20,000 direct and indirect jobs, while about 98,400 more were affected in the consumer or downstream industries.

Incidentally, it has been found that such NGOs are not open to looking at facts and their only agenda is to shut down the plant. They have not visited the plant for the past seven years, and are not willing to come for discussion with the management of the plant, while rejecting all invitations for talks by arguing that “the pollution is outside, not inside the plant”.

The management of the plant logically appears bewildered by the arguments of the NGOs, since pollution, if any, has to be more inside the plant than outside. Indeed, the NGOs are being used as a vehicle to destabilize the industry, with many of them reportedly having links with vested interests abroad and are funded by the business rivals.

The Ahmedabad-Mumbai high speed rail corridor project is India’s showpiece achievement, which is being liberally funded by the Japanese agencies. The project once completed will have multiplier effects on the transformation of the Railways with the induction of the new technologies. The Rail University is one such spin-off of this project.

But the roadblock came from the MahaVikasAghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra, which again had the Congress as its constituent. The MVA government had withheld the forest clearance and the land acquisition to derail the Rs 110,000 core project, for which the Japanese agencies are funding to the tune of almost Rs 88,000 crores. While 70 per cent of the land required for the high speed rail corridor project had previously been acquired, the MVA government just sat over the files to frustrate the engineers. It was only the new government headed by the chief minister EknathShinde that gave all clearances to the Ahmedabad-Mumbai rail Corridor project within two days of taking oath of office.

The dream project of the late Japanese prime ministerShinzo Abe was sought to be derailed by former chief minister Uddhav Thackeray and his son Aditya by allowing the dubious NGOs, claiming to be the protector of the environment, to restrain the officials from giving the needed approvals.

India, while being home to 17 per cent population of the world, accounts just for less than 5 per cent of the global carbon emissions, while Prime Minister Modi has shown that the climate change response and development could be given equal priority. This is evident from the G7, I2U2 and Quad forum lauding India’s strides in renewable energy, which is gaining unprecedented investment, while India has become a top nation for the carbon trading by the developed countries. This has been possible because the Prime Minister sent the Planning Commission packing, which was the resting place for the patrons of the dubious NGOs.   

(The author is Director, Public Policy Research Centre)

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