By Nitin Sethi
The Union Cabinet’s decision to auction cancelled coal blocks was announced by finance minister Arun Jaitley on Monday with only a passing reference that the government would protect the environment while doing so.
The UPA claimed to do so, too, but often cheated on its own stated regulations and policies. So far the NDA has performed worse than the UPA on this count, weakening green regulations with much greater clarity of intent, in haste and by stealth. The opaqueness of its actions only threatens to strengthen radical green groups and polarise the debate about sustainable growth instead of helping discover a better route to growth.
Integrating environmental concerns into coal block distribution is a tough call by any measure. It requires taking hard decisions about leaving some coal in the ground for good, about not touching some coal blocks till we reach certain energy demand-supply situation and permitting other blocks to be mined under strict supervision.
The decisions, in effect, would mean internalising the environmental and social cost of coal mining when pricing energy sources. It would have deep short and long term consequences for the cost of energy, the tariffs we pay and the energy mix India should seek. The altered pricing would make the government think of how to distribute power more equitably across the country’s different classes of citizens. It would also mean that, for a change, the country will make an attempt to treat millions of tribals that live off and have rights over these coal bearing lands as equal citizens.
To kick-start this big-canvas change, at an operational level, the government needs to at least set in place a worthwhile (and not a watered down) inviolate zone policy and accept the need for tribal consent over their traditional lands. This has to be done before the blocks are readied for auction. Business Standard wrote about the clean slate Supreme Court order provides the NDA to do so without being burdened with legacy issues.
Arun Jaitley’s passing reference and more than that, the government’s five-month record does not suggest that NDA has spent too much time thinking about environmental integrity of its decisions, let alone formulate a well worked out plan to achieve it. By now, in fact, there is enough evidence in public domain to the contrary.
The government, very rightly, wants to ease the investment climate and reduce green-taped license raj. But the ease of doing business will not be set by doing away with environmental safety, reducing judicial scrutiny and diminishing the rights of the poor. It will set in place by reducing the absolute political-bureaucratic discretion the NDA government has displayed when dealing with environmental regulations. This is the clean-up India’s citizens require Narendra Modi’s government to do under a Swachh Regulations programme.