25 Sep ENVIRONMENTAL CLEARANCE IN INDIA – FAST TRACK OR CHANGE OF TRACK
Most major investors to India, project proponents and the line ministries have been complaining against the inordinate delays and ambiguities in the decisions related to the Environmental Clearance (EC). The New government is therefore making all the efforts to move on the “fast track”.
The present Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has worked at great speed in his first 100 days and cleared 240 of 325 pending projects. Most public sector companies such as Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) got approval to expand capacity and start new projects. The Ministry also cleared major private sector projects such as a plan to increase Cairn’s oil production capacity by 50% in Rajasthan.
The Government estimates the hastening of approvals could spur investment worth Rs. 2 billion Rs and help revive the economy.
Fast approvals became possible by easing norms ((e.g. diluting no-development zones), eliminating processes like public hearing, changing thresholds (especially to decentralize decision making at State level) and diverting forest lands. The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) approved the diversion of a massive 7,122 hectares of forestland for development projects in the Narendra Modi government’s first three months. With the forest cover at 69.79 million hectares or 21.23 per cent of the geographical area as against 33 per cent mandated by the National Forest Policy, forest diversion could be of great concern.
Ministry further decentralized the forest clearance process by increasing the threshold of projects being considered by State governments from 15 hectares to 40 hectares. Nearly 90% files for forest clearance won’t come now to the Ministry.
Vide Notification S.O.1599 (E) dated 25th June, 2014, more powers have been delegated to SEIAAs to grant EC to various projects. Earlier, the projects in Category ‘B’ were being appraised as Category ‘A’ at Ministry of Environment and Forests level if they were located within 10 km. of Protected Areas, Critically Polluted Areas, Eco Sensitive Areas, and Inter-state / International boundaries. Now, this distance has been reduced to 5 km. implying thereby that more projects can now be considered by SEIAAs for granting ECs. Apart from this, the capacity up to which non-molasses based distilleries and mineral beneficiation activities could be considered as Category ‘B’ has been increased. Also, all bio-mass fuel based thermal power plants with capacity greater than or equal 15 MW have been put in Category B’. Earlier, such projects were considered as Category ‘A’ projects, if their capacity exceeded 20 MW.
The Centre had done away with the requirement of public hearing for coal mines below 16 MTPA, in a bid to expand output by up to 50 per cent. Later, this was extended to mines above 16 MTPA, permitting them to mine up to five MTPA or more without consulting the affected people. Border roads and all defense infrastructures within 100 kms of Line of Actual Control brought under General Approval scheme and so no public hearing will be required.
The Ministry reconstituted the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) and has done away with the five mandatory NGO representatives or the ten persons to be nominated by the Central government from among eminent conservationists, ecologists and environmentalists, as mandated by Section 5A of the Wildlife Protection Act. Besides, the notification only referred to the Standing Committee. It was not surprising therefore that the Supreme Court on August 25 stayed the decisions of the diluted Standing Committee of the NBWL, after a petition challenged the constitution of the Board. The Standing Committee however cleared most of the 140 proposals before Supreme Courts intervention.
The Government’s mantra seems to be two-pronged — to make it easier for project developers/investors to set up new projects or expand – viz fast tracking – but stipulate stringer environmental norms e.g. on emissions. This approach is likely to satisfy the business but environment campaigners are not impressed. When compliance to existing regulations itself is pathetic, how can one expect that stringer regulations will be complied with? Unless, the pollution control boards are strengthened, enforcement will continue to be poor.
A High Level Committee (HLC) has been now constituted vide OM 22-15/2014-IA-III, dated 29.08.2014 to review the key five Acts viz. Environment (Protection) Act, 1986; Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980; Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972; The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974; and The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. The idea is to “bring these laws in line with current requirements to meet objectives”. The Committee is expected to come up with recommendations in the course of just two months! I am sure the recommendations will include mergers and simplifications in the legal system towards “single window’ appraisals and clearances.
Clearly, what we are going to see in the next five years is not just “fast track” on project clearances but witness a “change of track” in the development paradigm. If foreign direct investments and job creation are going to be the principal drivers for taking decisions, then environmental protection and conservation will certainly take the back seat. We need to take a balanced and a strategic approach however to ensure that economic development, security of our natural resources and social justice go hand in hand. We need to change the track in this direction.
Fixing problems on ad-hoc basis is not going to work. Merely being on fast track could potentially derail our economy over long run, Sustainability will then only remain a rhetoric and talk in the seminars.