Manas Bhunia, who became the environment minister of West Bengal about 10 months back, lost the portfolio on Thursday, June 15, 2023 through a notification issued by chief secretary HK Dwivedi.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee will take charge of the environment department, according to the notification, a copy of which is with The Plurals. Bhunia will, however, continue to be the minister of water resources investigation and development; a department he had been leading before becoming environment minister.
This is the seventh change of guard in the environment department since the Trinamool Congress came to power in 2011; and the sixth in the past eight years. Apart from Sudarshan Ghosh Dastidar, who was the first environment minister of the Trinamool government, none of the subsequent environment ministers completed their full tenure. The list includes Sovan Chatterjee, Suvendu Adhikari, Soumen Mahapatra and Ratna De Nag apart from Bhunia.
Several theories are doing the rounds regarding Bhunia’s removal. Foremost being the recent blasts at illegal firework units across the state. The Egra blast had killed several people and had put the chief minister and the ruling Trinamool Congress in a spot ahead of the panchayat polls.
Incidentally, the chief minister said she was not aware of such illegal units operating in the state; and had to publicly apologise for the same. Bhunia’s short tenure was also marked by criticism on account of air pollution; as the critical air pollutants continued to increase in Kolkata and in the rest of the state once the COVID restrictions were taken off.
Also, the way an infuriated Bhunia reacted when he saw that the CM’s photograph was missing from the poster during the world environment day event on June 5 did not go well with the senior state pollution control board and environment department officials. While none wanted to be quoted, the green department was unhappy with Bhunia’s sharp condemnation in public and this was “unofficially” shared with the CMO.
“It was not appropriate as the event was a celebration of an international day, and there has been no precedent of carrying the CM’s photographs in the background. Bhunia could have shared his feelings with us in private rather than making an outburst in public, particularly in the presence of so many school children,” said a senior official.
While Bhunia could not be contacted, sources close to him denied that he was removed for non-performance on illegal firework units and other factors.
“On the contrary, Bhunia, as the environment minister, took initiatives to clear up long-term complications with firework units and took other departments on board,” claimed one. He also claimed that Bhunia has been relieved from the green ministry in view of his new responsibility to lead the newly set up Paschimbanga Rajya Sarkari Karmachari Federation; which is a "mammoth task".
“Change of environment ministers around June 5, the World Environment Day, has become a trend. This happened with Sovan Chatterjee and Suvendu Adhikari and even Ratna De Nag. They were replaced within three months of the world environment day; and now Bhunia suffered the same fate,” said Naba Dutta of Sabuj Mancha.
“Bhunia did little to address the key environmental issues. The environment lobby of the state, including Sabuj Mancha, had strongly criticised the failure of the state administration including the environment ministry in curbing the illegal firework units; and I believe this played a role (in the shift),” added the green activist.
“With the chief minister taking over the environment ministry on Thursday, till date seven environment ministers were in charge during the Trinamool era so far; six in the last seven to eight years. Hence, most could not complete and implement their plans. This can also be seen as a reflection of their non-performance,” observed Biswajit Mukherjee, a former chief law officer of the state environment department and state PCB.
Environment activist Subhas Datta said, “Manas Bhunia was trying to streamline the environment department of the state, and such approach might not have been liked by the powers that be," and added that "such rapid changes are not desirable.”
“If you look closely, you will find that most of the environment ministers during the current regime did not complete their terms and were also given additional responsibilities of other departments which underlines the lack of political priority for the department,” added Datta.
Countering this claim an environment department official said, “How can you say this with the chief minister now taking over.”
However, according to sources, the chief minister may soon hand over the responsibility to someone.