The road not taken
Governments at the Centre have often been perplexed in their choice between urban development and environmental protection – most often, ecology has suffered
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), on January 4, 2019, came up with a memorandum setting standard environmental clearance conditions for two sectors that currently witness the highest investment – infrastructure and building/construction projects, and area development projects. This was after the ministry released a similar memorandum on August 9, 2018, for 25 major industrial sectors.
There are two very distinct sides to this issue and most people are divided over this binary.
First side: Development agenda
The government aims to promote the ease of doing business as it had promised in its 2014 election manifesto. The NDA government has done its best to move towards a single-window system for environmental clearance (EC), which was materialised with the launch of Pro-Active and Responsive facilitation by Interactive, Virtuous and Environmental Single-window Hub on August 10, 2018. It is an online portal meant for submission, monitoring and management of proposals submitted to MoEF&CC by project proponents seeking various types of clearances.
The government also focused on making EC granting a time-bound process by bringing changes in policies and practices like the introduction of an online system to file and track applications (July 2015) and publishing the standard termination of resuscitation (ToR) guidelines for preparation of environmental impact assessment (EIA) and environmental management plan (EMP) report for all projects requiring EC (April 2015). The two memorandums were also a part of the same effort.
These moves have helped streamline the process by reducing the time to grant EC, removing lack of clarity and bringing uniformity in the process. The result – more than 1,500 projects have been cleared since July 2014.
"The government has substantially reduced the number of days in getting a crucial environment clearance to 190 from 600, and this will soon be brought down to 100," said Prakash Javadekar, then Union environment minister, in March 2017, while addressing a national convention on sustainable development organised by the United National Global Compact Network.
These efforts have fulfilled one of the major agendas in the government's manifesto – "Physical Infrastructure – Better than the Best". It has also caused a boom in the industrial and infrastructural space since 2014. This highlights the current government's aggressive approach towards meeting its overall developmental targets.
These moves have also proved to be beneficial for project owners and consultants as they provide clarity in preparing the EIA report. All this shows that these moves have surely been promising in terms of the country's overall economic development.
Second side: Environmental impact
The underlying issue, which has been left unaddressed and for which the government has been criticised heavily in the past, is the utmost neglect displayed towards the environment and the people in the government's new policies and practices. In the latest Environmental Performance Index (EPI), India figured in the bottom five countries. It went from 141 in 2016 to 177 in 2018, out of 180 countries.
India's poor environmental performance can partially be attributed to a weak EIA process in the country, which has been further diluted by changes in policy and practices. EIA is treated more as a means to get EC than as a tool to evaluate the actual impact of the project(s) on the environment and community. This is evident since project proponents have several times completed EIA studies with a detailed report in merely Rs 3 lakh. So, unsurprisingly, most EIA reports lack quality.
A March 2017 report by Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) on environmental clearance and post-clearance monitoring highlighted that the clearance process had been marred by major procedural deficiencies.
Some major gaps, as highlighted in the report, were delays in carrying out EIA, no consideration of cumulative impact on EIA, non-appointment of a national regulator to oversee the entire process as directed by the Supreme Court, granting clearance without checking for compliance, poor coordination among the ministry, state pollution control boards/Union territory pollution control committees and project proponents, lack of proper mechanism to ensure redressal of public concerns in the final EIA report/EC letter and implementation of commitments made by the proponent during public consultation in a time-bound manner.
Other shortcomings that CAG pointed out were in the conduct of public hearings, change in scope of projects without requisite approvals and commencement of construction/operations before getting clearances, poor monitoring of environmental parameters, lack of environmental quality monitoring in critically-polluted areas, no delegation of powers to regional offices against defaulting project proponents, no penalty on violation of EC terms and lack of post-EC monitoring.
Joining the dots
Environmentalists say that although the recent measures by the NDA government are being taken to streamline the process and make green clearances faster, they are actually diluting regulations.
Evidence: the government's constant push to introduce changes or dilute environmental legislation including Land Acquisition Act, 2013, Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, National Forest Policy, 2018, Indian Forest Act, 1927, and Coastal Regulation Zone, 2018.
Also, the involvement of communities in the appraisal process is being reduced by diluting the process of public consultation. According to a report by New Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment, exemptions have been provided in the public consultation process, most pronounced in the coal mining sector. Also, the requirement to comply with Forest Rights Act was relaxed in parts, said the report titled 'Report card: Environmental governance under two years of NDA government'.
Not improving the enforcement of regulatory requirements to safeguard the environment and interests of local communities has resulted in an increased number of cases related to land conflicts in recent years. According to Land Conflict Watch, a national watchdog which tracks, maps, collects and analyses ongoing land conflicts across India, there are 665 projects, across an area of 24 lakh hectares and an estimated investment of Rs 13 lakh crore, that are
affecting 73 lakh people. Clearly, the NDA government has not undertaken necessary reforms and opted for institutional strengthening to improve the green clearance process to safeguard environment and community interests.
Lastly, although the set of standard environment clearance conditions of all major industrial sectors listed in the two memorandums might bring clarity, these may not hold any value owing to the March 14, 2017, notification of MoEF&CC that allows post-facto clearance of projects, which also include CRZ clearances.
According to this notification, a six-month window is to be given to project proponents, who have been operating without obtaining a prior EC, to apply for the same. All applications of EC violations, irrespective of their size and capacity, will only be appraised at the central level by the respective sector-specific EAC and cleared at the Centre. This move was allowed under the pretext of improving compliance.
So looking at all the changes made by the current government, it appears that the environmental clearance process is becoming a formality. The quality of assessment, compliance of clearance conditions and the involvement of the local community through public hearings are being further weakened to ease the clearance process by introducing these changes. And the new memorandums are only meant to ease the process of obtaining clearances as mega projects like Bharatmala Pariyojana and Sagar Mala make their way.
(The author is Senior Research Associate, Industry and Environment at CSE. The views expressed are strictly personal)