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Thursday 10 November 2011

Green light for Pawar pet project

Green light for Pawar pet project
Nov. 9: The Centre has granted environment clearance to the Lavasa township, a Sharad Pawar-blessed project that became a test case for the UPA’s ally management skills.
The Union environment ministry, which had stalled the Rs 3,000-crore project a year ago when Jairam Ramesh held the portfolio, has imposed 54 conditions on the township.
Most conditions relate to construction, land and water use processes, energy consumption, waste discharge and social responsibility actions.
However, what stands out is the flurry of seemingly unrelated steps that preceded the environment clearance, which was disclosed a day before a court-appointed deadline.
On November 3, NCP leaders Pawar and Praful Patel had called on Congress president Sonia Gandhi at 10 Janpath.
On November 4, Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan met Sonia while he was in Delhi to receive an award. Later, he called for clearance for the project. The same day, the Maharashtra pollution control board had filed a case against the Lavasa chief promoter and others for violating provisions of an environment law.
On November 6, Pawar rose to the defence of the Centre on the petrol price hike and said there was no point in blaming the government for international fluctuations. The defence stood out in sharp contrast with the threat issued by Mamata Banerjee to the UPA.
The filing of the criminal case — which carries a maximum punishment of 5 years in prison and a fine of Rs 1 lakh — was the last piece in the jigsaw that allowed the Centre to make up its mind.
The Lavasa officials, including Pawar’s close friend and chief project promoter Ajit Gulabchand, were charged with unauthorised construction on 681 hectares. The Union ministry had set five conditions for considering regularisation — one of which was “credible action” by the state government against the violation.
The high court had said the Union ministry would have to give a decision by November 10. With the Maharashtra government moving against Lavasa in the weekend, the Union ministry announced the clearance a day before the deadline.
The official reasons and the conditions — 46 for construction and eight when the township becomes operational — are in line with stated policy.
However, activists, including Anna Hazare, have seized on the sequence of events and the perception problem of the UPA to cry foul.
So deep is the government’s image problem that suggestions, only half in jest, were being made that Pawar had managed what Mamata could not. The allusion was to the Centre’s refusal to give any commitment to the Trinamul Congress on price increase and a bailout package for Bengal — not strictly comparable as the Lavasa decision did not involve any government expenditure.
As image-dragging millstones go, the Lavasa controversy had become symptomatic of the mistrust and sense of drift among the UPA allies. When Ramesh, known for his drive to enforce environment laws, moved against the project last year, a perception gained ground that the Congress was sending a message to a restive Pawar.
Later, when the UPA lurched from one scandal to another, Pawar did not miss the chance to point fingers at alleged inertia in the government, which was seen as a reflection of his frustration over inaction on Lavasa.
Pawar, whose relatives were once on the board of the Lavasa Corporation but no longer are, has repeatedly said he had no undue interest in the project but the association had stuck in the public mind.
Pawar had introduced Gulabchand, a close family friend from the politician’s Baramati days, to the picturesque project site in the Sahyadri mountains, an hour’s drive from Pune. The area had caught the eye of Pawar during a chopper ride.
While Gulabchand welcomed the Union ministry’s clearance, environment activists who had taken Lavasa to court have questioned the “haste” shown by Chavan. On November 4, the day he called on Sonia, Chavan had also met environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan and urged her to grant clearance to Lavasa as his government had fulfilled the condition of “credible action”.
Pune-based activist Suniti S.R. said: “First, his government files a criminal case against Lavasa and then the chief minister urges the environment ministry to give clearance to the project. We can’t understand such haste.”
The company said in a statement: “We are committed to developing Lavasa as an economic, social and environmentally sustainable city.”

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