New Delhi: In a move aimed at reining in violators, the union environment ministry has decided to recommend closure of projects if developers are found to have started the construction without the mandatory environment clearance (EC).
The action will be taken only in case an expert panel of the ministry finds it to be environmentally unsustainable. “This is a one-time opportunity for six months to apply for environmental clearance to units which are in violation on date of the notification (14th March 2017),” said an official statement.
The draft of the notification, which was published on 10 May, had been criticised by environmentalists who said that it would mean giving a retrospective approval to errant projects, unduly favour violators, encourage fait accompli and dilute the deterrent effect of environmental rules.
It seems the pressure worked and thus the provision to close down projects that are environmentally unsustainable has been added to the final notification.
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As per the final notification, which was reviewed by Mint, if any projects or activities or the expansion or modernisation of existing projects or activities requiring prior environmental clearance is found to have been undertaken in any part of India without obtaining prior environmental clearance from the central government or by the State authorities then it “shall be considered a case of violation of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006 and will be dealt strictly.”
“The cases of violation will be appraised by respective sector Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC) with a view to assess that the project has been constructed at a site which under prevailing laws is permissible and expansion has been done which can be run sustainably under compliance of environmental norms with adequate environmental safeguards … and in case, where the finding of the EAC is negative, closure of the project will be recommended along with other actions under the law,” said the final notification.
Different sector-based EACs in the environment ministry appraise projects as per the provisions of the EIA notification 2006 after which it recommends or rejects environment clearance to projects. Subsequently, a final clearance is granted or denied by the ministry.
But in cases where EAC finds that the project can run in an environmentally sustainable manner, the expert panel will prescribe assessment of ecological damage, a remediation plan and natural and community resource augmentation plan (NCRAP).
It also specified that the project proponent will be required to submit a bank guarantee equivalent to the amount of remediation plan and NCRAP with the State Pollution Control Board. The environment ministry said the move is to bring such projects and activities in compliance with the environmental laws at the earliest point of time, rather than leaving them unregulated and unchecked.
“The idea is to take away the economic benefit (if any) derived by the company due to violation and pay for the remediation of damage caused due to violation. No consent to operate or occupancy certificate will be issued till the project is granted the EC,” the ministry said.
It, however, specified that projects or activities which are in violation as on date of the notification only will be eligible to apply for environmental clearance and the project proponents can apply for environmental clearance under this notification only within six months from the date of this notification.
Environmentalists are not happy.
“The premise of this amendment condones the illegality occurred, encourages violations and negates the purpose of a detailed EIA and public hearing process, prior to recommending an approval or rejection. On the question of whether the project can run sustainably under compliance of environmental norms, there are two clear issues that emerge upfront. First is that of reposing faith in a project proponent which has already shown little regard for the environment regulation; and second it completely ignores the fact that the record of compliance with environmental safeguards in India is extremely poor,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the Namati Environmental Justice Programme of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank.
Even the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), last week, had highlighted the poor record of the environment ministry, stating that it had failed at every step in ensuring the environmental protection and conditions on which projects are cleared are not monitored at all. It had also said that the ministry had not penalized even a single project for violation of EC conditions.