New Delhi: In an effort to accelerate big-ticket infrastructure projects, the government is considering changes in existing environmental laws including a withdrawal of mandatory environmental clearance ahead of modernization of airports and ports. However, greenfield projects that are developed from scratch (the airport and port projects will largely require redevelopment) will continue to require this clearance.
While companies welcomed this change, environmental activists say it will dilute India’s already weak environmental laws.
The changes being considered also include one that will address a long-time complaint of activists by making it mandatory for environmental consultants to register with the Quality Council of India, an independent body created by the government. This will prevent the recurrence of incidents where some environmental consultants have managed to obtain clearances for projects on the basis of reports that have been subsequently found to be fraudulent.
A Change Too Many? (Graphic)
The changes will be incorporated in the ongoing review of the Environmental Impact Assessment, or EIA notification, which was last modified in 2006. It was first notified in 1994 under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 and has been revised 15 times since. The EIA is the report on the basis of which the government gives the environmental clearance to projects.
The changes, which are currently being considered by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF), are expected to be released for public scrutiny on 8 March, according to officials associated with the process who did not wish to be identified.
Companies say the changes will speed things up in the infrastructure business where delays are common.
“As of now, there are 700 industrial projects waiting to be put on the agenda of the clearance committee. It is a welcome move because infrastructure projects need to be put on the fast track. Moreover, if the project has already been inspected once, then there is no need to re-scrutinize it,” said K.P. Nyati, head, environment policy division, Confederation of Indian Industry, an industry lobby group.
Environmental activists do not agree. “This is a critical issue. The Chennai airport is being modernized and expanded and there is a lot of protest. The expansion will dislocate a lot of people as well as affect a neighbouring river, which would involve a clearance,” said Leo Saldanha, coordinator, Environment Support Group, an activist group.
A senior official at the civil aviation ministry who did not wish to be identified said while it would still be difficult to get environmental clearance for large airports being built from scratch, the relaxation would help the cause of several airports that are being upgraded across the country.
Several existing but unused airstrips in the country are likely to be developed into airports through the so-called public-private partnership model (where the government and a private sector firm partner) over the coming years.
“The EIA notification has already been significantly diluted in 2006 towards facilitating the clearance of projects. Today, its text and implementation are clearly directed towards mitigation and management of impacts rather than the precautionary principle and rejection of projects with critical impacts,” the official added.
MoEF is yet again going ahead with amendments in a non-transparent manner. “Project proponents in any case see the environment clearance process as an impediment,” said Kanchi Kohli, member, Kalpvriksh Environment Support Group, an activist group.
The change regarding the mandatory registration of consultants hasn’t gone downwell with either companies or activists.
Several consultants have executed fraudulent or inadequate EIAs; some have even copied EIAs used in the past. Mint has reported several such cases (see box). The registration process could prevent a recurrence of such instances.
Nyati, however, said this might not be the correct measure right now.
“We (CII) proposed that the registration process reach a critical mass of consultants before the process is made mandatory. Till then, it should be encouraged. For instance, if a project proponent has the EIA done by a registered consultant, then the project will be fast tracked,” added Nyati, who is also on the registration committee under the QCI. He expects that the critical mass will be reached in four months.
Others say that just registration is not adequate. “We have been demanding this for a long time but just a list doesn’t solve everything. It is like the case of PAN (permanent account number) cards and income tax. Just because someone has a PAN card doesn’t mean he will not evade tax,” said Saldanha.
The ministry official agreed with this.
He said registration could end up being more of an exercise in documentation.
Another change that has been proposed is a common set of standards, or terms of reference (TOR), for those projects, classified as Category B, that require a clearance only from the state government.
At present, each project has an individual set of TORs for getting an EIA.
While agreeing that the overall quality of EIA consultants is not up to the mark, Nyati said: “QCI will eventually improve the quality of EIA consultants. We propose that generalized TORs be set by the authorities for certain sectors, so that even not so good EIA consultants have a certain guideline to follow.”
Tarun Shukla contributed to this story.