Busi­ness comes first

In the garb of stream­lin­ing green clear­ances, the Union gov­ern­ment has side­lined com­mu­ni­ties and di­luted en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions over the past four years |


The Cen­tre has passed green clear­ances of­ten at the cost of com­mu­ni­ties and the en­vi­ron­ment

WHEN THE Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance (nda) came to power in May 2014, rid­ing on a pub­lic sen­ti­ment for change, we, as re­searchers on en­vi­ron­men­tal gov­er­nance, nur­tured a fear: the overtly busi­ness­friendly gov­ern­ment would di­lute en­vi­ron­men­tal norms. The pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment, the United Pro­gres­sive Al­liance

(upa) in its first term, had brought in leg­is­la­tions, such as the En­vi­ron­men­tal Im­pact As­sess­ment No­ti­fi­ca­tion (2006), to tighten en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment process, and in­tro­duced rights-based leg­is­la­tions, such as the Sched­uled Tribes and Other Tra­di­tional For­est Dwellers (Recog­ni­tion of For­est Rights) Act (fra), 2006, and the Right to Fair Com­pen­sa­tion and Trans­parency in Land Ac­qui­si­tion, Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and Re­set­tle­ment

Act, 2013, em­pow­er­ing gram sab­has (vil­lage coun­cils) to give con­sent for de­vel­op­ment projects that in­volved for­est diver­sion and land ac­qui­si­tions. But in its sec­ond term (2009-14), upa started di­lut­ing these leg­is­la­tions. The fear was that nda would con­tinue with the same ap­proach. It has come true.

Just four months af­ter it came to power, nda set up a High Level Com­mit­tee on For­est and En­vi­ron­ment Re­lated Laws, headed by for­mer cabi­net sec­re­tary TSR Subra­ma­nian, to pro­pose re­forms to In­dia’s com­plex and much-ma­ligned en­vi­ron­men­tal clear­ance (ec) and for­est diver­sion pro­cesses, and other en­vi­ron­men­tal laws. How­ever, no such over­haul hap­pened. The Par­lia­men­tary Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy re­jected the Subra­ma­nian com­mit­tee’s patchy rec­om­men­da­tions in July 2015.

In the past four years the Union gov­ern­ment has given EC to 1,098 projects in the ma­jor de­vel­op­ment sec­tors and about 124,788 hectares (ha) of forest­land diver­sion has been agreed upon to give way to 6,060 projects in var­i­ous de­vel­op­ment sec­tors. The forest­land di­verted is over 80 per cent of the area of Delhi.

More­over, in the past four years, the Union Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment, For­est and Climate Change (moef&cc) has del­uged us with amend­ments and guide­lines in two key laws re­lated to EC and for­est diver­sion—the En­vi­ron­men­tal Im­pact As­sess­ment (eia) No­ti­fi­ca­tion (2006), as de­vel­oped under the par­ent En­vi­ron­ment (Pro­tec­tion) Act (1986), and the For­est Con­ser­va­tion Act (1980). Green clear­ances are be­ing in­creas­ingly treated as a mere for­mal­ity.

Rights di­luted

The first change came the week the nda gov­ern­ment took of­fice. On May 30, 2014, moef&cc did away with EC pub­lic hear­ing re­quire­ment for coal min­ing projects with spe­cific ca­pac­ity ex­pan­sion. Two more no­ti­fi­ca­tions to pro­vide re­lax­ations to de­vel­op­ers fol­lowed in the next four months. In July 2017, the Ex­pert Ap­praisal Com­mit­tee (eac) of moef-&cc ex­empted com­pa­nies from un­der­tak­ing pub­lic hear­ings for up to 40 per cent ca­pac­ity ex­pan­sion for coal min­ing projects (see

nda v upa on p24). So while the scope of peo­ple to voice con­cerns has been re­stricted, the gov­ern­ment has re­mained sen­si­tive to the need of the de­vel­op­ers. For in­stance, in October 2014, moef&cc is­sued guide­lines to give de­vel­op­ers an “op­por­tu­nity” to present their case while pro­pos­als for for­est clear­ance (FC) were be­ing re­viewed by the For­est Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee (fac) at the Cen­tre or the Re­gional Em­pow­ered Com­mit­tees (recs) at moef&cc’s 10 re­gional of­fices. The gov­ern­ment, how­ever, has not shown sim­i­lar en­thu­si­asm for an­other im­por­tant as­pect of the FC process—the set­tle­ment of for­est rights under fra. While such rights must be set­tled be­fore a Stage 1 FC is given, this is not be­ing done.FC is a two-stage process: in Stage I cer­tain con­di­tions are stip­u­lated, such as com­pen­satory af­foresta­tion, and upon com­pli­ance of those con­di­tions, the Stage 2 clear­ance is given. Even in Jan­uary 2018, the Union Min­istry of Tribal Af­fairs asked the moef&cc to en­sure this, without any success.

De­cen­tral­i­sa­tion sans ca­pac­ity

The gov­ern­ment has used de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion as a key pol­icy move to ex­pe­dite ECs and FCs. For ECs, de­vel­op­ment projects have been in­creas­ingly placed under the am­bit of state-level au­thor­i­ties, such as state ex­pert ap­praisal com­mit­tees (seacs) and state en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment au­thor­i­ties

(seiaas). These in­clude projects in sec­tors such as ther­mal power, ir­ri­ga­tion/ river val­ley and con­struc­tion. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, dis­trict-level au­thor­i­ties, such as Dis­trict En­vi­ron­ment Im­pact As­sess­ment Au­thor­ity (deiaa) and

Since 2014, the gov­ern­ment has agreed to di­vert 124,788 ha of forest­land to give way to 6,060 projects in var­i­ous de­vel­op­ment sec­tors

Dis­trict Ex­pert Ap­praisal Com­mit­tee

(deac), have been cre­ated to deal with ECs per­tain­ing to small-scale mine leases. Amend­ment to the eia No­ti­fi­ca­tion in Jan­uary 2016 made EC com­pul­sory for min­ing of mi­nor min­er­als in ar­eas less than or equal to 5 ha, which these au­thor­i­ties will clear. They have also been charged with ECs for clus­ters of small leases, where the clus­ter size is over 5 ha but less than 25 ha, with no in­di­vid­ual lease be­ing over 5 ha.

In case of FCs, the fo­cus of de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion has been on lin­ear projects, such as roads, trans­mis­sion lines, canals, pipe­lines and rail­ways. In October 2014, the For­est (Con­ser­va­tion) Rules (2003) were amended to give recs the power to grant FCs to all lin­ear projects.

While the idea of de­volv­ing power is not prob­lem­atic per se, it should only be done af­ter ad­e­quately en­hanc­ing the ca­pac­ity of the re­spec­tive au­thor­i­ties. But this has not hap­pened and the as­sess­ment process has re­mained weak. For ex­am­ple, a state­wise re­view of the meet­ing min­utes of

seacs and seiaas in key in­dus­trial states, such as Gujarat, Kar­nataka and Tamil Nadu, shows that these au­thor­i­ties some­times re­view over 50 project pro­pos­als in a day. The re­jec­tion rate at the state level has been a mere 1 per cent in the past four years.

As­sess­ment con­cerns

The ques­tion about qual­ity of project as­sess­ment be­fore it is cleared is a con­cern at all the lev­els and for all types of clear­ances. The slew of no­ti­fi­ca­tions is­sued by the gov­ern­ment does not re­flect any in­ten­tion to in­sist on “com­pre­hen­sive as­sess­ment” be­fore projects are cleared, or to en­sure com­pli­ance and mon­i­tor­ing once they are in place. In fact, the changes that have been done are pri­mar­ily for the con­ve­nience of the de­vel­op­ers and to re­duce clear­ance time. A prime ex­am­ple of this is the de-link­ing of FC and wildlife clear­ance for projects within ecosen­si­tive zones. Ear­lier, FC was con­tin­gent upon the de­vel­oper ob­tain­ing a wildlife clear­ance from the Na­tional Board for Wildlife. But this was done away with in Au­gust 2014.

Along­side di­lut­ing as­sess­ment, per­mis­sion to start work with par­tial clear­ance has also been given. This has par­tic­u­larly hap­pened for the min­ing sec­tor. On Novem­ber 10, 2015, the gov­ern­ment is­sued a guide­line say­ing that if a min­ing lease in­volves for­est and non-for­est land, work can start on the non-forest­land once Stage 1 approval has been ob­tained. This was par­tic­u­larly tar­geted to­wards coal blocks hav­ing both for­est and non­forest­land. Ear­lier for projects involving both for­est and non-forest­land, no work was al­lowed to start even on non-forest­land un­til all clear­ances were ob­tained.

The drive to make way for de­vel­op­men­tal projects is also weigh­ing on most sen­si­tive wildlife habi­tats, such as Pro­tected Ar­eas (PAs). In April 2015, the gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced a pro­vi­sion of “most ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances” to al­low use/diver­sion of forests within PAs. But there is no clar­ity on what con­sti­tutes such cases.

Equally poor is the gov­ern­ment’s com­pli­ance and mon­i­tor­ing mech­a­nism. A re­view of mon­i­tor­ing re­ports made avail­able by the 10 re­gional of­fices, shows that for projects granted EC since 2014 in ma­jor de­vel­op­ment sec­tors, there are barely any re­ports avail­able. Com­pli­ance is com­pletely de­pen­dent on sub­mis­sion of pe­ri­odic com­pli­ance re­ports by de­vel­op­ers, the avail­abil­ity of which are equally poor, and those sub­mit­ted of­ten go unve-ri­fied. For FC, there is no mon­i­tor­ing re­port avail­able in the pub­lic do­main.

Ac­com­mo­dat­ing vi­o­la­tors

The gov­ern­ment also seems to be adopt­ing a rec­on­cil­ia­tory ap­proach to­wards the vi­o­la­tors. In March 2017,

moef&cc is­sued a no­ti­fi­ca­tion giv­ing a six-month win­dow to project pro­po­nents who have been op­er­at­ing without ob­tain­ing an EC to ap­ply for the same.

The pre­text under which this was al­lowed was to im­prove “com­pli­ance”. While at that time it was said that all such vi­o­la­tions, ir­re­spec­tive of size and ca­pac­ity, will only be re­assessed and cleared at the Cen­tre, due to the ex­tremely large num­ber of such cases com­ing up, the gov­ern­ment de­cided in March 2018 to al­low seac/seiaa to de­cide on them, de­pend­ing on their size and ca­pac­ity. This is at a time when the ca­pac­ity of these au­thor­i­ties even to clear reg­u­lar projects is ques­tion­able. Projects in vi­o­la­tion of coastal reg­u­la­tion zone clear­ances have also been given a sec­ond chance. In March 2018, moef&cc is­sued a no­ti­fi­ca­tion in this re­gard.

The sit­u­a­tion is clearly dire. The four years in­di­cate that not much thought has gone into im­prov­ing the green clear­ance mech­a­nism. The gov­ern­ment still has nine months to re­visit its prom­ises.

State en­vi­ron­ment im­pact as­sess­ment au­thor­i­ties some­times re­view over 50 project pro­pos­als in a day. Re­jec­tion rate at the state level has been just 1 per cent in the past four years


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