New Delhi: India’s environment ministry project approval rate doesn’t seem to have been reined in significantly, contrary to its recently gained reputation as a hurdle to development and bearing out minister Jairam Ramesh’s stand that he wasn’t raising impediments in the way of investment.
Between 1 August 2009 and 31 July 2010, 535 projects across sectors were approved, with just six being rejected, according to responses received from the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The RTI applications were submitted by a Delhi-based environment activist group, EIA (environment impact assessment) Response Centre (ERC).
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Between 2006 and 2008, 14 proposals were rejected and 1,746 approved.
“What it clearly shows is that, firstly, governance has not really improved, except for cosmetic changes. Yes, there are more updates on the website, but in real terms, not much. The clearance level has not changed at all, and worse, there is no grievance redressal,” said Ritwick Dutta, environment lawyer and co-convenor, ERC.
“But there is this general idea within the country, and the corporate sector, that the MoEF is pro-environment and tighter in this respect,” he said. “But all projects are going through as they have in the past many years, except for a handful of high profile cases.”
Due to the MoEF’s recent show cause notices to big projects, such as the Lavasa housing project in Pune, the Adarsh Housing Cooperative, Mumbai, and rejections handed out to Vedanta Plc’s bauxite mining in Orissa, the ministry has been branded environmentalist-friendly.
Ramesh, soon after he joined the ministry in May 2009, had said that the department needed to raise rejection rates. “That will mean we are doing a good job,” the minister had said on 26 June, 2009.
The minister did not respond to Mint on the response given to ERC.
It shows that in hydroelectric projects, all eight applications were approved, in coal mining, out of 58 applications, 31 were approved and none were rejected. The balance of the applications roll forward to the next appraisal committee meetings. Appraisal committees analyse environment impact reports and recommend them for clearance or rejection to the ministry.
Among industrial projects, there were 209 approvals and no rejections; thermal power plants saw 49 approvals and one rejection and non-coal mining got 71 approvals and three rejections.
Coal mining is especially critical because of the ongoing controversy on the zones that the MoEF has declared “no-go” and “go”. The coal ministry is vehemently opposed to the MoEF’s idea of certain heavily forested areas being closed off to coal mining.
On Monday, Ramesh had held a meeting with the Confederation of Indian Industry to dispel concerns that environmental regulations are coming in the way of development.
“In terms of hydel power, the two projects, Lohari Nag Pala and Pala Maneri, were both cleared earlier, before they were stopped on the basis of public representations and court cases,” Dutta said.
Industry representatives said the mixed signals are emanating from the various channels, such as the courts and public-interest platforms.
“We know most clearances get through. But I think the main issue is, in some places where a lot of investment has gone in, it is getting unclear for industry. We know that it is a set process, but it is more about what happens post clearance,” said a CII spokesperson.
“First, the state gives a go-ahead; and then, that interpretation is changed either through court cases, or by civil society representations directly to the minister,” the spokesperson said. “That is the response we are getting from companies.”
At the Monday meeting with CII, Ramesh also said that most of the action he had taken has been based on representations he has received from the public.