About 10 days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India needed to find a balance between saving the environment from global warming and development, especially when it comes to generating energy.
In Goa, a state administered by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, the balance was tipped 15 months ago. And it wasn't even for energy, but for breweries, distilleries and five-star hotels.
The biggest challenge to Goa, and its ecology, appears to be from a high-powered government body called the Goa Investment Promotion and Facilitation Board (IPB).
The IPB overrides all state, town and village-level laws related to clearing industrial growth, including those formed under the the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution.
The Board is chaired by the Chief Minister, and members include ministers and secretaries of industries, tourism and IT departments of the state government, besides members of industries associations.
New industries that are highly polluting (under the so-called "red category") cannot get clearances through the IPB, unless an existing industry wants to expand.
The IPB has been the key player behind drastic changes to the Goan landscape, transcending environmental safeguards and constitutional institutions.
At a speed that will make business lobbies drool, the IPB has cleared 71 projects worth over Rs 7,000 crore in just nine meetings since it was established in October 2014.
In one meeting on 21 January, the board cleared nine projects worth nearly Rs 1,900 crore, including four five-star hotels on the coast in the Bardez region, and a mall.
Such hotel projects form a large proportion of projects cleared by the IPB, besides manufacturing and pharmaceutical units. Many of these are coming up in "no development zones" and land with natural cover.
At least one of these projects was approved in an area that had coconut trees. And some months later, the Goa Assembly passed an outrageous law, reclassifying the coconut palm as a grass, rather than a tree. That's because a 'grass' can be cut freely, compared to trees.
The IPB is notorious for giving clearances where the land that is not designated to have industries or hotels. This is often forested land.
This also happened in the widely reported case in Sanguem, where Vani Agro's distillery was allowed to come up by clearing 1,000 coconut and 500 cashew trees. That the permission to clear then for the distillery was given before the coconut palm was reclassified shows how powerful the IPB is.
For another hotel and villa project, 20,000 square metres of orchard land was converted to a commercial settlement, of which 5,000 square metres of orchards were to directly come under the axe. "The IPB Act is in direct conflict with the Constitution of India, in allowing preferential treatment of change in land use to a select few," says Reboni Saha, secretary, Goa Bachao Andolan.
In its zeal to give clearance to industries, the Board often oversteps its own mandate under the the Act. Saha said that examples include approvals for projects coming up on steep slopes, in forests and in areas under the Coastal Regulation Zone (for example, a hotel project on Capao Island).
While activists have been speaking out against the IPB, one gram-sabha recently passed a resolution demanding the IPB be scrapped.
The IPB's opponents got a shot in the arm last weekend, after the Parliament's committee on environment concluded a visit Goa by terming the IPB 'destructive'.
Rajya Sabha MP Ashwani Kumar, who chairs the Parliament's Standing Committee on Science and Technology, and Environment and Forests, said on 6 February that the Act is a 'destructive law', and that it seems the state government is "out to destroy Article 14 [of the Constitution, equality before law]."
Kumar said he will request the Union government's intervention in the matter.
"It seemed like the government is taking steps to protect the environment, but I must say, for this, they have to change the laws of IPB and the coconut tree," he told the press.
Edited by Shreyas Sharma
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