NEW DELHI -- India's government will set up a new environmental regulator to review investment projects, the prime minister said, freeing politicians from making unpopular decisions to protect ecology at the cost of development.
India has been embroiled in fierce debate over how to protect the environment while also lifting hundreds of millions of people from poverty through investment and infrastructure.
The Environment Ministry, long seen as a rubber-stamp machine, has irked investors by canceling or holding up major projects, including a $12 billion steel plant proposed by South Korean conglomerate Posco. At the same time, forest dwellers, fishermen and farmers alike have complained that mines, factories and power plants are polluting their environs and jeopardizing their livelihoods.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that while poorer countries' were primarily concerned with development "as it should be," the environment should not be treated with "passive disregard."
It is "no longer acceptable to take as given that a certain degree of environmental degradation and over-exploitation of natural resources in the cause of promoting growth is inevitable," Singh said at an environmental seminar Sunday.
Jairam Ramesh, the fiery former environment minister promoted this month to a Cabinet job overseeing rural development, has also said there can be no development without environmental protection, as the two objectives were linked.
Ramesh had guided the once-marginal Environment Ministry to become a powerful gatekeeper of prosperity in granting green clearances, while also promoting India – the world's fourth-largest polluter – as a major player in global climate change talks.
But his decisions over the past year to reject some investment projects, including by London-based mining giant Vedanta Resources, prompted investors and politicians to accuse the government of being arbitrary or unconcerned with the plight of the poor.
Singh gave few details Sunday about the planned National Environment Appraisal and Monitoring Authority, saying only that it could lead to a "complete change" in how clearances are granted as projects would be reviewed by "better and more objective standards of scrutiny."
He also said the government's push to encourage renewable energy sourcing and new regulations on green buildings were part of efforts that "will cumulatively lead us to a low-carbon growth path." The comment seemed to address the pressure India faces to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, though New Delhi has long insisted industrialized countries should bear the burden of cutting emissions to mitigate global warming.
"It is no longer tenable to pretend these are concerns only for the other or wealthier nations," he said during the seminar titled "Global Environment and Disaster Management: Law and Society," according to Press Trust of India.
It is unclear how new Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan will operate, though she has said she will stick to Ramesh's agenda.