18 February 2014


Oh Mr. Moily, what happened to your speed? The man who boasts of clearing a file in a matter of seven minutes is probably undergoing what can be termed as a 'signature fatigue'. It is showing and how!

The day was Valentine's Day. The place was ITC Maurya Sheraton, Delhi. Love was in the air and lovers were everywhere. As M Veerappa Moily, our Environment-cum-Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister (yes such a portfolio is possible only in India) got ready to coochi-coo with top hot-shots of India Inc at the National Convention of the UN Global Compact Network, his Valentine's Day Surprise walked right in. A man in a tiger costume walked in with roses, a card, and a heart-shaped balloon – perfect Valentine's Day paraphernalia.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? "Oh it's the Essar Mascot," someone said. "Essar loves you Mr. Moily," said the MC of the event. Blushing like a newly-wed bride our dear Mr. Moily accepted the gifts. It was only when the tiger was joined by a group of activists holding banners that said 'Essar Loves Moily, Axes Forests' that people realised something was amiss. The light pink blush on Moily's cheek turned into a furious crimson. But the colour transition was slow – unusually slow for an environment minister, who has granted clearances to 174 big-ticket infrastructure projects in a matter of a few weeks. Obviously he was giving shape to the corporate dream of a 'fast growing' India. Forests, environment, tribal... oh do they really exist? Even if they did, Mr. Moily had no time to think about them... after all its just four months to the Lok Sabha elections!

The Greenpeace activists were opposing the Stage II forest clearance given to Mahan coal block in Singrauli Madhya Pradesh. This means, Mahan Coal Ltd- a joint venture of Essar and Hindalco will now be able to dig a gigantic hole in the middle of the Mahan forests to mine coal.
But even though Stage II has been granted, the villagers in Mahan and Greenpeace are determined not to give up the fight. "We would not allow Mahan forests to be mined by the company. We will prove that people's voice can ultimately prevail over the power of money. The policymakers can no longer ignore our voices," says Bechan Lal, member of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti.

The Mahan forest is home to 164 species of plants including Sal, Saaja, Mahua, Tendu among others and several threatened and rare animals such as, leopard, sloth bear, hyena, wild dogs, chinkara, chousingha, nilgai and sambar. Tigers and elephants too pay a friendly visit from time to time. There are 14 villages in the region that are completely dependent on the forest. Collecting mahua flowers, tendu leaves, firewood, and grazing cattle fetches them their daily bread. But the mining would end it all.

The in-principal Stage I clearance was granted to Mahan coal block in 2012 with 36 conditions, which included implementation of Forest Rights Act (FRA). This involved holding free and fair gram sabhas in villages that would then decide on whether they want a mine or not. In March 2013, a special gram sabha on FRA was conducted in Amelia Village in Mahan region, which villagers say was, fraudulent. Though 184 people attended the gram sabha, the resolution has 1,125, signatures – villagers fear that most of them have been forged. Seven of the signatories have been dead for three years. In June last year, Union Minister of Tribal Affairs, Mr. K.C. Deo, had written to the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh regarding the FRA violations in Mahan, but his protest has been conveniently ignored. Even Moily's predecessors Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan had opposed the clearance given to Mahan coal block.

Initially declared a no-go zone, former environment minister, Jairam Ramesh had refused to grant Stage I clearance to the coal block. It was only after the recommendation of an Empowered Group of Ministers that Mahan coal block was given the Stage I clearance (in-principal) by Jairam's successor, Jayanthi Natrajan in 2012... and that too because huge investments were made by Essar for their thermal power plant.

"Despite reservations against the diversion of the dense forest land expressed strongly by the MoEF at the GoM, and the fact that the entire civil work and construction of the plant is already complete after procurement of environmental clearance — and resulting inter alia in huge exposure to nationalised banks — Forest Clearance may be granted to the Mahan Coal block," Natrajan had observed while signing off the green nod.

But Mr. Moily was determined to overrule every observation. After all it was the Essar Group of Companies that we were talking about. Moily's romance with Essar dates back to his days in the Law and Corporate Affairs ministries. Late last year Moily slammed bureaucrats for recommending termination of the inordinately delayed Essar Oil's Ratna oilfields contract and transferring it to state run ONGC. He refused to act against Essar with the argument that it would damage investor sentiment. Moily's reluctance to properly investigate Essar's relationship with Loop telecom during his stint at the Corporate Affairs ministry is another example of this soft corner for them. Essar has been charged by the CBI for using Loop Telecom as its front company to garner precious 2G spectrum by circumventing law.

On January 22, this year, Greenpeace activists draped Essar's 21-storey building with a banner that announced to the world how Essar's activities threaten forests. Not only was Greenpeace slapped with a Rs. 500 crore defamation suit, Essar also moved an injunction in Mumbai High Court demanding that Greenpeace should stop demanding Veerappa Moily's resignation from all its communication. The latter plea was thankfully rejected by the court. But the love affair is clearly out in the open.

It was a dark wet day in Delhi, marred with traffic jams to top it all. Yet the gloom of a cold, rainy day was overpowered by the whiff of love. But for Moily and Essar, this Valentine's Day – tuned out to be well, embarrassing. As they say never wash your dirty laundry in public. As the late and great Shammi Kapoor (playback Mohammad Rafi) once sang, 'Aajkal tere mere pyar ke charche har zaban par'. So watch out Mr. Moily.