Can Environment Ministry Revive Pro-Industry Image After Natarajan’s Exit?

The Ministry of Environment and Forests is jinxed. I say this because the ministry is yet to get a stable and decisive steward who can run the show. After Jairam Ramesh was removed from his position under the guise of cabinet reshuffle, his successor Jayanthi Natarajan resigned last week after a stint of two and half years. She has resigned ostensibly to leverage her experience and strengthen Congress Party’s clout in Tamil Nadu. The episode, however, has grey areas.

Although Natarajan has been rigorously refuting all allegations of holding up major infrastructure projects, the truth is not very distant. The former minister not only delayed crucial projects but also recommended an increase in the minimum timeframe to give approval to big projects.  Presently, the time limit is 150 days. If her proposal prevails, it would be a double jump to 300 days. Investors and industrialists would sincerely hope that the proposal does not see the light of the day.

The list of allegations against Natarajan continues. According to some senior officials, Natarajan was sitting on proposals despite the ministry’s own expert appraisal committee (EAC) giving them a green signal. They are of the opinion that Natarajan was not in sync with the government that was trying to bolster economic growth.

Since statistics is a favorite word for many, allow me to put this one across: During Natarajan’s tenure, the ministry has been accused of holding up no less than 35 mega projects, which involved an investment exceeding Rs. 1,000 crore for each of them. Total investment is way beyond Rs 35,000 crore as some of them were valued above Rs. 5,000 crore. In fact, 31 power projects are yet to get environmental clearance as on November 30.

It has come to pass that Natarajan had ‘persistent differences’ with cabinet colleagues as some critical projects missed clearance deadlines set by the Cabinet Committee on Investment (CCI). For those who don’t know, CCI was brought into existence by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to fast track decision-making by getting all concerned ministries on the same board. The ex-minister seems to have created an impression of “working at cross purposes” with the CCI. That has somehow foiled CCI’s plan to expedite the clearance of big-ticket projects.

Congress leadership had handed over the baton to Natarajan with a hope of changing the ‘anti-industry’ image of the environment ministry. To give her the due credit, she started off on an aggressive note by taking speedy measures to make processes and rules more industry friendly. The momentum fizzed out in due course and inordinate delays in clearance once again became the talk of the day.

With Veerappa Moily being the new minister in the block, it is to be seen whether he can live up to the PM’s expectation of reviving animal spirits. He has already sought details of pending projects that can be cleared in a month’s time and he has also made his intentions clear about reaching out to all infrastructure and development ministries to get a list of pending projects in need of immediate attention. May the coming days turn out to be merrier for the ministry!