Air pollution
[Representational Image]Reuters

When the environment is at odds with business, who wins the final game? Maybe while the former wins some in its favour, some go in favour of the latter.

Maybe it is a bit difficult to decide because the term 'environment' itself denotes business these days in many ways. Maybe it is also an irony of a kind that we use 'environment' synonymously with 'resources,' mitigating otherwise obvious differences between them beyond any distinction.

Whatever that is, the conflict between the environment and business in India has been a glaring one for decades in several of its unique ways. It has held several mining, power and infrastructure projects hostages for such long times. Interestingly, a debate on the environmental preservation and the growing energy needs takes newer turns in the country every time.

Posco's Jagatsinghpur, Essar's Mahan and Vedanta's Niyamagiri projects were some of the recent cases that exposed a clear underlying structural imbalance in approach as to how the precepts of environment come in conflict with the economics of business.

Government's own account suggested that 304 projects involving an investment of US$200 billion remained stalled with the project management group of the Cabinet Secretariat as of February 2016. While updates on this were unavailable immediately, a large number of these projects were reportedly in the domain of power, steel, petroleum, and railways.

There are several such accounts from across the country. A media report in January this year said at least 118 projects in north-eastern region of the country remained pending with environment ministry for clearances until then. Likewise, it was also reported that hundreds of projects in Maharashtra remained stuck for reasons similar to this.

A Feedback Consulting estimate earlier said that over 250 power projects having a cumulative generation capacity of about 80GW announced between 2005 and 2011 and involving an investment of US$80 billion remained stalled on account of cancellation of coal mines and delayed approvals.

The environment is the doughty villain in all these cases. For its huge size, coal mining is perhaps the biggest business that has attracted its ire the most, as well.

Coal industry has been repeatedly asking the government to ease environment regulations. More specifically, they want dilution in norms related to local consent and stakeholder discussion. Also a grave area of concern for them is provisions related to forest clearances and land acquisition.

Industry feels that environmental regulations such as Forest Rights Act 2006 have blocked industrial and mining development in the country for long.

Mining major Coal India (CIL) has said several times in the past that it will not be in a position to meet future production targets unless its requests for the development of new mines are cleared.

The government is seemingly doing all it can to alleviate the problems. In an effort to speed up the clearances, the prime minister's office (PMO) recently asked the environment ministry to water down environmental and forest clearance rules further. PMO wants environment ministry to clear all pending proposals immediately and follow up with states on such projects.

PMO even suggested that compensatory afforestation, a prerequisite for forest clearances for projects, be done after grant of state-II forest clearance.

Such efforts under the previous dispensation were thwarted by the then environment ministers who were unwilling to tow the government line of diluting clearance norms drastically.

Despite sincere efforts, however, reports suggest nothing much has changed on the ground to reckon with under the present dispensation as well.

A Press Trust report last week said issues such as environmental clearances, land acquisition and law and order problem were delaying around 89 projects of CIL. Of these while 62 projects were mining programmes, the remaining were non-mining projects.

Of the 62 delayed mining projects, 34 were running behind the schedule on account of delays in getting forestry clearances and 17 were delayed because of land acquisition and associated rehabilitation and resettlement issues, the report said.

Interestingly, there is also an opposite view to this: that how dangerous it is to be an environmentalist, or to be part of an environmental organisation in this country.

A recently released report of international NGO Global Witness said India was the fourth deadliest country for environmental activists, after Brazil, Columbia and Philippines.

The report said 16 environmental activists were killed in the country in 2016, and most of the killings were connected to mining industry.

"The Modi administration's shrinking of civil society space is particularly disturbing when viewed in parallel to the government's aggressive pursuing of foreign investment for large-scale infrastructure, power and mining projects, and apparent disregard of local, particularly indigenous, voices. Under Indian law, these communities must be consulted before any development project takes place. In practice, these rights are often cast aside," the report added.

In a way the report is putting in perspective a growing demand for revising the ongoing processes employed in land acquisition, environment and forest clearances that greatly affect the life and livelihood of the local population in several ways.

At times environment is a nightmarish affair to politicians as well.

Last week CBI registered an FIR against Jayanthi Natarajan, former environment minister, in relation to diversion of forest land for mining in 2012. CBI alleged the land diversion to Electrosteel Casting in Singhbhum district of Jharkhand was in violation of Forest Conservation Act.

The merit of the case apart, the irony is that she was one such environment minister who was widely criticised for not following her own government's dictum, or following the rules strictly. Her tenure was described to be a big stumbling block in the way of business expansion plans.

The centrality of environment as the biggest obstacle for doing business should change. However, it is likely to remain a challenge until the day a mechanism is evolved to share a good part of the profits from these ventures with masses that suffer on account of them.

A casual look at the human development index of Odisha should explain this elaborately.

The living standard of the people in a state that has been catering to a major share of the mineral needs of the country for over a century is sadly way below the national average on all aspects. It is time we should ask why business of trillions of dollars didn't cause any social or economic uplift in the lives of people they are closely connected with there.

To attract global investors into the country, the perception that environmental norms are getting in the way of growth must go for a change. But people affected should be one of the major stakeholders in any such story of growth anywhere in future. Everything should be participatory.

In effect, this will automatically draw a line of balance between vandalism of environment by a few and using resources in a meaningful and sustainable way in the development of the nation. And that fine balance alone should decide whether the environment wins or the business ultimately.

The onus is now on the government that how smoothly and tactically they can move around this in a way that is beneficial to all the stakeholders.