It was meant as an opportunity to find the middle ground between a worried industry and an activist environment minister, but the interactive function organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) only highlighted the conflicting positions of the two. While FICCI heavy-weight and JK Paper MD Harsh Pati Singhania pointed to “impractical” aspects of many environmental laws, Jairam Ramesh urged people to understand the deeper issues behind the refusal to move many project files.
“Are you aware of why they have not moved? Are you aware of issues on the ground,” asked the slightly agitated minister, when asked why steel plants such as those of the Tata group at Kalinganagar have been kept pending for clearances for 5 years or more. Jairam pointed out that 14 tribals were shot dead when protesting against Tata’s plant in Kalinganagar in Orissa.
“Are you aware of how firing took place and why people got killed? Are you aware of why Tatas have not been able to get off their greenfield project in Bastar or in Orissa? Are you aware of the ground-level issues of what is happening..? Please understand the magnitude of the problems that are involved and the complex reasons why these projects have not taken off the ground,” he said, adding that the proposed POSCO project too is yet to find its mineral supply.
Speaking on behalf of the industry, Harsh Pati Singhania, immediate past president of FICCI and JK Paper managing director urged the minister and others not to treat large projects under the same laws that are applicable to small units. “We are talking about large projects — the scales of which have never been seen in this country… It’s not like putting up a small steel plant here and getting a little bit of iron ore or getting a little bit of coal. We are talking of millions of tonnes. That has got to be dealt with differently,” he said. “We are talking about a 9%-10% GDP growth. So there has to be a balance of growth and environment compliance,” he added.
Jairam, who has blocked many mega projects in his 20-month tenure, said such large projects suffer from a terrible ‘image problem’. “The perceptions are that large projects displace people. They do not compensate people enough for their loss of livelihoods. That’s a huge challenge the industry has to address as a part of good corporate social responsibility,” he replied.
Once it was clear that Jairam Ramesh will outlive the cabinet reshuffle as the minister for environment and forests, industry fora have been trying a policy of ‘engagement’ with the minister. As a part of the move to ‘build bridges’, the biggest industry association, the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), held a similar interactive session with Jairam last week with heavyweights such as Tata’s JJ Irani, VIkram Kirloskar and Pawan Munjal.
Jairam had struck to his hardline position there too, pointing out that environmental laws were made to be implemented and not to “assuage the conscience” of those who passed them. However, the two meetings have resulted in the setting up of a co-ordination committee with the CII and another ‘compliance facilitation centre’ co-owned by the ministry and the FICCI.