The National Green Tribunal (NGT) once notorious for ‘Jayanti Tax’ and ‘Green Terror’ has become an effective environmental protection agency under the incumbent NDA government. The ‘J’ factor under the UPA rule had jinxed development in India. According to an India Today report, Jayanthi Natarajan and Jairam Ramesh, her predecessor successfully converted Ministry of Environment, Forest (MoEF) as the single biggest stumbling block to India’s growth story. Question of clearance of hundreds of coal blocks was left hanging in the air. Same story was with Forestry clearances for diverting thousands of hectares of land which in turn resulted in damaging government’s power generation plans. Projects of other sectors such as roads, steel and defence also suffered because of ‘Green Terror’ unleashed by the MoEF under the UPA government. India failed to achieve its target of $1 trillion investment in infrastructure sector between 2012 and 2017 mainly because of environmentalist militants. Not just infrastructure but it also damaged UPA government’s target to achieve growth rate of 8 per cent during the electoral year.
According to the India Today report, a PMO official said, “Since the days of Ramesh, the ministry has tended to lean in favour of the need to protect environment, keeping development at bay. We have been pushing MoEF to streamline its procedures, but to no avail.” According to popular perception, Jairam Ramesh and his successor were working in the direction to make pro-environment lobby, which enjoyed the blessings of the then Congress President Sonia Gandhi. There were many incidents which time and again validated that this perception is true. When the Ramesh cancelled the forest clearance and later on environmental clearance granted to Vedanta Aluminium Ltd to mine bauxite, Rahul Gandhi visited Lanjigarh and said, “I am your sipahi (soldier). I will carry out your wishes in Delhi,” he told to crowd comprising tribals. This lunatic pro-environment approach was mainly the party’s efforts to attract common men (aam aadmi). The Hindu published an explosive letter of Natrajan’s to Sonia Gandhi. There is also mention of cancellation of clearance granted to Vedanta Aluminium Ltd to mine bauxite. Natrajan writes, “As Chairperson NAC, you have written several letters to me regarding projects in the Environment Ministry, and protection of tribal rights, and I have always kept you briefed that due care was being taken by me to protect the environment. I received specific requests [which used to be directives for us] from Shri Rahul Gandhi and his office forwarding environmental concerns in some important areas and I took care to honour those “requests.” Shri Rahul Gandhi went in person to Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha, and publicly declared to the Dongria Kondh tribals that he would be their “sipahi” and would not allow their interests to suffer at the hands of mining giant Vedanta. His views in the matter were conveyed to me by his office, and I took great care to ensure that the interests of the tribals were protected and rejected environmental clearance to Vendanta despite tremendous pressure from my colleagues in cabinet, and huge criticism from industry for what was described as “stalling” a Rs. 30,000 crore investment from Vedanta.” Narendra Modi referred to ‘Jayanthi Tax’ during the 2014 election mainly because of holding up of development projects like this as mentioned in the excerpts of letter.
Further reading of her letter suggests that it was not only ‘Jayanthi Tax’ but also ‘Dynasty Tax’ that India paid the price for. Her letter to Sonia Gandhi further reads, “Fortunately, my decision was upheld by the Supreme Court. The same happened in the case of the Adani projects, where I faced tremendous criticism from within the cabinet and outside, for stalling investment at a time when the country was going through a difficult time in terms of the economy. The complaints of the local fisherfolk and NGOs of environmental violations in the Adani case were forwarded to me by Shri Rahul Gandhi’s office, and I was told to liaise with Shri Dipak Babaria in the matter. Occasionally, I apprised Shri Rahul Gandhi of steps I had taken, and he responded positively. In fact you have yourself conveyed your concern in this regard in letters written to me. In several cases including the stalled GVK power project regarding the Dhari Devi temple in Himachal Pradesh, the Lavasa project in Maharashtra, the Nirma cement plant in Gujarat and in several other cases I was given specific input, to make my decision. Apart from this Shri Pulok Chatterji, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister was in constant touch with me, and officers of the Ministry in guiding the decisions to be taken by the Ministry at that time.”
As environment minister, Ramesh and Natrajan entered into tussle with many cabinet ministers. Ramesh was even at loggerheads with PMO over hydro projects in the North-east.
Judicial Activism and environment activists further added insult to the injury. The NGT in all this adopted a partisan approach and had been giving stay orders without going into merits and proper consideration of the projects grated clearance by the ministry. The NGT locked horns with MoEF many times especially during the reign of ‘J’ factor. Its orders have been considered as a case of judicial overreach. Projects of many companies such as Korean steel giant Posco’s integrated steel project at Jagatsinghpur district in Odisha, Lavasa township project, Jindal Steel and Power Company’s coal mining and washery project at Raigarh district in Chhattisgarh faced the wrath of environmentalist militants. The NGT quashed clearances given to many other projects which includes Aranmula Airport Project in Kerala, the coal-based power plant in Chhattisgarh’s Korba district, and mining activities in Sacorda, Goa.
However, things began to change under the incumbent NDA government. The NDA government took many initiatives to make green clearances faster, industry-centric approach is the main focal point of forest governance now. NDAgovernment has ended dictatorship of NGT and made it more accountable and efficient. Recently, the NGT asked Volkswagen to pay penalty of Rs 100 crore for using cheat device in its diesel cars in India which leads to environmental damage. It also imposed a fine of Rs 50 crore on Delhi government for not taking action against illegal steel pickling units. The NGT also slapped fine of Rs 25 crore on Kejriwal government for failure to control air pollution. It also lambasted NDA government on several occasions including on cleaning of holy river Ganga, and river Yamuna. Under the NDA government the NGT has found a new strength. It has been involved in major environmental causes including Namami Gange and has successfully evolved into an organization that intervenes without seeking to control projects. In fact it ordered to reopen sterlite plant in Tamil Nadu. Although it attracted anger of Hindu pilgrims because of its orders capping pilgrims limit at Vaishno Devi and asking devotees to maintain silence in front of the shivalinga at Amarnath cave, but however so far under the NDA government NGT has been quite active and successful in its endeavor to serve the purpose for which it was established.