Jayanthi Natarajan moves from Cabinet to cadre, more shuffles likely

Written by fe Bureau | New Delhi | Updated: Dec 22 2013, 16:20pm hrs
Jayanthi NatarajanCongress leader Jayanthi Natarajan on Saturday resigned as minister of state for environment and forest. (PTI)
Bracing up for the general elections, due in four-to-five months, after the drubbing in recent state assembly elections, the Congress is in for an organisational resuscitation, at the instance of party vice-president and likely prime ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi. In what could herald many such re-assignments, Union environmental and forest minister Jayanthi Natarajan resigned on Saturday to take up a larger role in the party.

Oil minister Veerappa Moily will hold additional charge of environment and forests, according to a Rashtrapati Bhavan statement.

This is the second high-profile exit from the Cabinet this year after Ajay Maken quit as Union minister for housing and urban poverty alleviation in June to devote more time for party work.

Natarajan took up the crucial portfolio in 2011 from Jairam Ramesh at a time when corporate India was up in arms against huge delays in environmental and forest clearances for large projects and a tedious approval process that took a toll on investments in the economy. It was then reported that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was keen that the clearances be expedited. Natarajan was expected to spearhead the change. Her stint, however, was not particularly marked for any directional change, and later finance minister P Chidambaram got the PM to set up a Cabinet committee on investments for fast-tracking large infrastructure projects, much to the discomfiture of Natarajan.

Though Natarajan, a Rajya Sabha member from Tamil Nadu, expedited the pace of road construction by de-linking environment and forest clearances, as she demits office, as many as 31 power projects are awaiting environment clearance (EC). Even the Posco steel project in Orissa, the countrys largest FDI proposal, is stuck with the National Green Tribunal.

Tata Powers 500 MW thermal power plant in Maharashtra; 1,980 MW plant in Sasan; 1,980 MW project in Jharkhand; public-sector Steel Authority of Indias mining proposal in Durg, Chhattisgarh, and NHPCs 3,000 MW hydro project in Lohit, Arunachal Pradesh, are, among others, awaiting EC from the ministry of environment and forests.

Natarajan, however, was seen articulating the developing countries stand creditably in global fora on issues of climate change and sustainable development.

The outcome document of the Rio +20 conference held at Rio de Janeiro in June, 2012, to the principles of equity and common, but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), which India pitched for with support from the Group of 77 developing countries and China. This would mean that the rich countries would take a bigger share of emissions cut obligations in view of their long history of fossil fuel combustion and need for development space for the developing world.

We are at the tail end of the year and the party is thinking of a revamp. Besides, she was the face of the party and was on 11 television channels on the day of elections. The party wants her to devote her full time to the organisation. She has given in writing that she wants a larger role, said a source close to Natarajan, without disclosing if she could be made spokesperson.

The ministry is yet to accord forest clearance to 600 projects such as Arcelor Mittal's iron ore and manganese mining project in Jharkhand. Similarly, the Sagar Super Thermal Project (1,980 MW) to be built by Universal Crescent in West Bengal is yet to get environmental as well as coastal regulation zone (CRZ) clearances.

Incidentally, Natarajans resignation comes a day after the MoEF eased norms for agriculture and plantation activities along the Western Ghats after it had banned all such activities in the region just over a month back. This development happened suddenly. No one was aware of this, said environment secretary V Rajagopalan.

She might be sent back to Tamil Nadu as she is not in any of the five special committees set up by the party, added a source in the Congress.

Sources in the party said some more ministers like her could be asked to resign in favour of full time party work. Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh was named as the convener of a 'special group' of All India Congress Committee to facilitate and coordinate actions for the coming Lok Sabha elections two months ago and is expected to resign any time. On the other hand, corporate affairs minister Sachin Pilot and minister of state for power Jyotiraditya Scindia have already been given larger roles in the party to take charge of organisational work in their respective states before the elections.