No-go Natarajan

Tags: News
When Jayanthi Natarjan, a third generation Congress politician handpicked by the late Rajiv Gandhi back in the 80s, put in her papers as union environment minister last week, the 59-year old lawyer-turned-politician from Tamil Nadu, claimed she was doing so in order to work for the party ahead of the parliamentary polls next year.

That, however, may not be entirely true. Sources say she was directed to quit by none other than Rahul Gandhi as she has been responsible for holding up big ticket projects worth Rs 10 lakh crore, mostly in critical infrastructure. It is no secret that while the cabinet committee on investment (CCI) had been trying to fast-track projects, Natatajan was acting as a stumbling block in providing environmental clearances. Even the new national manufacturing policy was held up for several months as Natarajan put a spoke in the wheel on grounds of environmental protection. The policy was cleared only after prime minister Manmohan Singh intervened.

If former environment and now rural development minister, Jairam Ramesh, began the process of policy paralysis of UPA II with his go no-go stand for mining that brought several new power projects to a halt, his successor Natarajan fine-tuned it even further as is evident from the fact that of the Rs 14 lakh crore worth of stalled projects which came up before CCI, at least Rs 5 lakh crore were entangled in the environment ministry’s red tape.

Natarajan is accused of not giving green clearances for several projects in her own state of Tamil Nadu during her two-year tenure, but that has perhaps not been taken note of too seriously by the party high command as Tamil Nadu is ruled by the opposition AIADMK. Her exit only became inevitable at the fag end of UPA II’s regime because of the persistent differences with her cabinet colleagues on clearing important projects within the deadline set by CCI and serious complaints by the Congress chief minister of Maharashtra who sought a relook at regulations linking height of construction to road width. In Gujarat and West Bengal, too, several major projects had hit the environmental roadblock.

Shortly after Natarajan’s exit, Rahul Gandhi told an industry meet that decisions on project clearances should not be delayed for “no good reason,” apparently referring to the growing complaints against Natarajan. But the former minister maintains that there are legitimate environmental concerns and the Uttarakhand tragedy has only highlighted the dangers and environmental hazards of some hydro-electric power projects and dams. She claimed there were no pending projects in her ministry as only 8 per cent of the projects came to union environmental ministry and 92 per cent were cleared by states.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the UPA II government has been stung by the growing criticism of non-performance. As a last ditch effort to salvage its image, the new environment minister, Veerappa Moily within days of taking over, eased state-level green clearance norms and scrapped mandatory environmental impact assessment and public hearing process in certain cases. Moily, working overtime, indicated on Thursday that he may soon clear field trials of genetically modified crops, a long pending controversy sparked off by BT Brinjal during Ramesh’s tenure. There may be arguments for and against GM crops, but it is definitely a scientific breakthrough that needs to be adopted to increase India’s farm productivity, one of the lowest in the world. With ever-increasing need to produce more to feed a 1.2 billion population and surging double-digit food inflation, there is no alternative but to adopt the GM crops.

This quick action, good or bad for the environment, augurs well for an economy that had only been going downhill in recent years. But for Natarajan — grand daughter of Bhakthavatslam, the last Congress chief minister of Tamil Nadu, then known as Madras state — this could well be the end of the road for her political career. But then, who knows, this could also be a minor roadblock and switching lanes from governance to ground-based party work may well take her places.

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