HT Business: May 13, 2019
New Delhi: Environmental clearance processes across industrial sectors have eased since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) assumed office, according to a compilation of official documents related to environment impact assessment (EIA) between December 2014 and January 2019.
Industry bodies have welcomed the simplification of rules, documented in the compilation published by the environment ministry last Tuesday, but environmental experts say ecological concerns have, in the process, been overlooked.
For example, on August 10, 2018, the ministry stipulated standard environmental clearance conditions for 25 industrial sectors such as coal mining, iron and steel plants, industrial estates, river valley and hydroelectric projects to speed up the process of granting clearances.
Environmental experts said the uniform format overlooks the unique ecological concerns related to individual projects.
“For example, if you have a power plant on the coast or inland, the environmental concerns are different. This is not captured,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at think tank Centre for Policy Research.
On March 15, 2016, the ministry, for the first time, delegated the authority to grant environmental clearances for up to 5 hectares of individual mining lease of minor minerals and 25 hectares in clusters to the district EIA authority headed by the local district magistrate or district collector.
The decision was challenged in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) because experts said district authorities lacked expertise in assessing the environmental impact of mining.
On March 20, 2015, the environment ministry issued an office memorandum saying a project proponent will not require a fresh environmental clearance at the time of renewal of its mining lease if it already has a clearance. The ministry, in April 2016, also extended the validity of green clearances granted to projects depending on when they were granted the approvals.
In March 2017, norms for thermal power plants were relaxed. Environmental clearances for thermal power plants, including the so-called ultra mega power plants capable of generating 4,000 megawatts or more of electricity, can be considered and granted without linking it to prior environmental clearance and Stage 1 forest clearance for the linked coal blocks, an official memorandum said.
The same year, the ministry also issued a notification under the Environment Protection Act, allowing the appraisal of projects “ex-post facto” — projects on which construction had begun without necessary environmental clearances.
Another intervention which drew criticism from environmentalists was an amendment of the EIA notification 2006 to provide for integration of environmental clearances for real estate projects in the building by-laws, virtually exempting them from environmental appraisal. The NGT ordered a stay on the amendment, but the ministry has moved SC against the order.
“There are three set patterns which emerge in these office memoranda that significantly compromise the scope of the notification: First are exemptions from requirement of environment clearance or public hearings or both. Second is allowing all defaulters to seek post facto approvals with no threat of their operations being stopped. Third is the standardisation of environmental conditions giving less opportunity for site-specificity to define safeguards,” added Kohli.
Industry executives accept that in the past five years the government has tried to standardise and simplify the process of granting environmental clearances.
“But some configurational changes are still pending. For example, the transfer of environmental clearance from one project proponent to another is not integrated yet,” said Jai Shankar Balan, assistant general manager, JSW Steel Limited, and a member of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India.
Disclaimer: This information has been collected through secondary research and IBEF is not responsible for any errors in the same.