New Delhi: India is considering allowing construction of new airports, including those located in the so-called special economic zones in coastal areas on a “case-by-case” basis, provided the projects do not compromise “environmental considerations”.
In its statement of intent, put out in the form of a draft notification issued on 9 May by the ministry of environment and forests, or MoEF, and titled the coastal management zone (CMZ) notification, the government has spelt out that clearance for such airport projects would be based on “detailed scientific study incorporating adequate environmental safeguard measures required for neutralizing damage to the coastal environment”.
It has given 60 days for the public to file its objections. After this, the government will convene a meeting to take into account the public’s response before going ahead and formally notifying the new law.
The 9 May notification follows draft guidelines on coastal management zones issued by MoEF for public discussion on 1 May.
These guidelines incorporate two changes from an earlier version issued in August 2007. Besides permitting new airports in coastal areas, they also lift restrictions on fishing and fishery related activities of local communities living in the area — the earlier draft did not permit this.
An indicative list of ecologically sensitive areas, given by the MoEF, includes mangroves, coral reefs, marine wildlife protected areas and nesting grounds of turtles and birds.
Environmental activists are opposing the draft notification because they say it could damage ecologically sensitive regions.
Environmental concerns: A view of Anjuna Beach in Goa. Environmental experts say the draft notification, if implemented, would weaken the 1991 notification on coastal regulatory zones.
“This notification makes construction of a new greenfield airport like the one proposed at Navi Mumbai possible,” said Debi Goenka, executive trustee of Conservation Action Trust, a Mumbai-based activist group.
“Though all suggestions (from the public) might not be incorporated, they are taken into consideration,” said a ministry official, who did not wish to be identified.
“Modernization of airports might just mean cosmetic changes and not have any environmental impact,” the official added, but refused to comment on the ecological footprint of new airports.
While the draft guidelines do not allow other commercial activities such as development of tourist resorts on the lines of seaside resorts in Mauritius or Bali in Indonesia in ecologically sensitive areas and in coastal cities such as Mumbai and Visakhapatnam, there is no such bar for new airports.
“People (investors) are generally afraid of CRZ rules, they don’t know how to handle it.” said Kuljit Singh, partner, Ernst and Young’s India offices,who oversees airport-related projects.
“A lot of projects are stuck in the regulation, if this is simplified, it will now become easier for projects. It will ensure that these projects will come up on time. For all airports — especially Navi Mumbai — being planned, it should be a major boost,” he added.
CRZ refers to coastal regulation zone, the area where the rules relating to development in coastal areas will apply.
Singh said the move will also help large SEZs in the coastal region who may want own airports after the government last month announced a policy that makes this easier. Under the new policy, most airports can be cleared by the civil aviation ministry directly instead of seeking a Union cabinet approval.
The draft CMZ guidelines, which had been under discussion for the last two years, are said to be based on the recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee, constituted to strengthen India’s 7,600km coastline after the 2004 tsunami and check CMZ violations.
Environmental experts say the draft notification, if implemented, would weaken the 1991 notification on costal regulatory zones.
This is because the government wants to have separate so-called setback lines, or boundaries along the coast beyond which no development can take place, for different coastal regions. This is being done to take into account the lack of uniformity in the country’s coastline.
Until now, India has had a uniform setback line of 500m for ecologically sensitive areas and 200m for other coastal areas.
MoEF has termed the uniform vulnerability line as outdated and has said that differential setback lines are in tune with international norms.
Officials at the ministry who did not wish to be identified, however, admitted that drawing such a line is a complex task.
The ministry’s pilot project to define a setback line for four coastal districts in Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Karnataka failed because of unavailability of data (this is classified information).
The draft notification divides India’s coast into four zones — ecologically sensitive, areas of particular concern such as highly populated areas and economically important areas, other coastal open areas and island territories such as Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
For each coastal area, the Union government will outline coastal management plan, but its implementation and monitoring would be the job of state governments or local bodies.
Mint’s Padmaparna Ghosh and Tarun Shukla contributed to this story.