Modi tax?

By Rajiv Shah
BJP’s prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi was in Goa in January second week. He took a jibe at former Union environment and forests minister Jayanthi Natarajan – saying there was a “Jayanthi tax” when she was in charge of the ministry. Modi alleged many files in the ministry were pending only because of a new tax in Delhi called “Jayanthi tax”, and unless it was “paid” no file would move. "We've heard of income tax, sales tax, commercial tax in the past, but this is the first time we are hearing of a Jayanthi tax!" he declared. When he made the remark, I humbly thought, what’s new about it. Politicians of all hues are alike. They all charge a “tax” for all that they do. My experience in Gandhinagar as correspondent wasn’t any different.
Indeed, I wasn’t wrong. My friend Mahesh Pandya, who, as environmental engineer (he calls himself environmental expert; “I am not an environmentalist”, he says), moves around Gujarat campaigning on environmental issues with all his energy, tells me if that there was Jayanthi tax in Delhi (and which may be continuing under some new name now), there is reason to be believe that there is “Modi tax” in Gujarat. Citing a Right to Information (RTI) application filed by one Kirit Rathod, Pandya adds, as of December 2013, as many as 1,739 projects are awaiting environmental clearance with the Gujarat government. Reason? Because the state government has failed to form a new State-level Environmental Appraisal Committee (SEAC), which expired in July 2013.
Pandya has had some success in establishing himself as an environmental crusader, yet I decided to take all that he was saying with a pinch of salt. I called for the RTI reply, which I got. Then I contacted a senior Sachivalaya official to know what the reality was. The official told me that there are two types of environmental clearances, Category A and Category B. If Category A environmental clearances “must go to Delhi for a nod”, Category B are “not serious enough, hence don’t need a Delhi nod”. They can be cleared in the state itself, without any issues. They just need a nod of the SEAC, and that’s it. So, my question was, why were so many projects pending, as the RTI reply had said.
“There is no SEAC in Gujarat ever since it expired in July 2013. There was a certain delay in sending an application for Government of India nod to constitute SEAC, as required. We moved it in November 2013, though it should have been sent to Delhi sometime in January 2013. If that was done, the necessary clearance could have been obtained and we would have had a new SEAC by August 2013. We hope to get an okay from Delhi soon. We think that the new SEAC would be formed in mid-February. Once the application is cleared, the pending projects under the Category B, requiring state clearance, too, would be cleared without much problem”, the official, known for his suave nature, told me. His answer amused me.
In Sachivalaya, it is widely rumoured, this official was one of the “authors” of Modi’s book “Convinient Action: Gujarat's Response to Challenges of Climate Change”. Modi often claimed his book was an answer to issues raised in “An Inconvenient Truth”, a 2006 Academy Award winning documentary film on former US vice-president Al Gore's campaign to educate citizens about global warming. Released in December 2010, Modi made a big show out of the book – he roped in former President APJ Abdul Kalam and The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI) director-general RK Pachauri to release it and made an official of the Macmillan Publishers India Ltd to declare that he was the “second political leader to write a book on climate change” following Al Gore!
It is quite another thing that Modi’s “Climate Change” served as a coffee table book for a little while in the elegant chambers of Sachivalaya babus, and then disappeared to their bookshelves. Few read it, and those who tried doing it, frankly said, it contained “nothing but a compilation of well-edited Gujarat government press notes and some very good photographs.” In 2009, Modi declared that Gujarat had become the first state to have a climate change department. Five years have passed, yet we don’t have a full-time climate change secretary. Worse, the state government’s Gujarat State Wide Area Network (GSWAN), on its sites page, at the very fag end, does mention climate change department, but you click on it and you reach Gujarat Energy Development Agency (GEDA). GEDA is in existence for the more than three decades promoting alternative sources of energy in Gujarat, starting with the Surya Cooker in 1979!
Meanwhile, how serious has the Gujarat government been about climate change or environment can be gauged from following facts: The Gujarat government got cleared from the SEAC few of the high-profile projects, crucial for Modi’s image makeup, quite some time after they were implemented! One of them was Mahatma Mandir, the huge complex where Vibrant Gujarat global business summits and other top events are held in Gandhinagar. The SEAC was made to clear it “post-facto”. The same happened with as many as eight malls, built in Ahmedabad and propagated as the new face of Ahmedabad. Then, there are other government-sponsored high-profile projects like Sabarmati River Front or Sardar Statue in the Narmada river, about which officials declare, without mincing words, that “there no need to take their environmental clearance.”

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