New Delhi/Kolkata: In a bid to spur fresh investments and unlock investments stuck in the pipeline, the government is considering some dilution in environment norms.
While the tribal affairs ministry has given its in-principle approval for exceptions to the Forest Rights Act (FRA), the norms governing environmental clearances pertaining to projects of Coal India Ltd (CIL) were simplified to expedite approvals.
The tribal affairs ministry has agreed in principle to allow a few concessions in FRA for linear projects such as power transmission lines, roads and railways, said a top ministry official, declining to be identified. The ministry, which had earlier refused to dilute FRA norms, reviewed its decision after new power minister Jyotiraditya Scindia and environment minister Jayanti Natarajan wrote to tribal affairs minister Kishore Chandra Deo seeking concessions for such projects.
In the case of CIL, the government late last month issued a notification giving the state-run miner the authority to directly approach the central pollution control authority, bypassing those run by state governments, to boost output of mines in operation since 1994 by as much as 25%. Mines that started operations before implementation of stricter environment laws in 1994 will, however, not benefit from this move.
With this the process of holding public hearings has been dispensed with. This will reduce the time taken to obtain environmental clearances to six months from two-three years, according to CIL chairman S. Narsing Rao. The simplification of the process will help CIL raise annual output by as much as 42 million tonnes (mt) in about a year, Rao said in an interview.
“That’s a huge leap,” said Partha S. Bhattacharyya, a former CIL chairman. “I would think CIL would make necessary arrangements to demonstrate that it can expand mining without raising the overall pollution level. That, in turn, will inspire confidence in the government to simplify the process even further.”
Unavailability of coal because of stagnant supplies has forced power generators to delay or scrap projects, putting at risk economic growth in India, which badly needs to add capacity to make up for electricity shortages.
CIL, the world’s biggest coal miner, produced 431 mt in 2010-11 against a target of 461.5 mt because of stalled projects. It failed to meet its 2011-12 target of 440 mt as well, mining 435.84 mt, but has set a target of producing 468.74 mt in 2012-13 amid land- and environment-related hurdles and is under pressure from power companies to step up supplies.
Clearances from the environment and forest authorities also pose the biggest roadblocks for roads and highways.
Officials in the roads and highways ministry have been pushing for a relaxation in FRA norms for linear projects, so called because they run in a line, such as roads and highways that pass through various villages.
Last week, the National Highways Authority of India said around 26 highway projects are pending with the environment ministry for environmental and forest clearances. Forest clearances take longer to grant than environmental clearances as FRA compliance has to be ensured first.
A highways ministry official had earlier said that the process of getting approvals from village councils was leading to delays in expanding roads in forest areas. The highways ministry sent a list of suggestions to the environment ministry in August last year to speed up clearances for road projects, including the simplification of approvals under FRA.
Scindia has sought “some dilutions” in the FRA norms for construction of power transmission lines, a second official in the tribal affairs ministry said, requesting anonymity.
The power and environment ministries are seeking the dilution of a clause in the law that requires no-objection certificates (NOCs) from village councils or gram sabhas for linear projects.
FRA, when it was notified in 2008, gave more powers to the gram sabhas, incorporating provisions relating to the recognition of forest dwellers’ rights to conserve and manage community forest resources.
Project proponents have to obtain NOCs from 51% of all the gram sabhas of villages that would be affected by a project to be able to get a forest clearance certificate from the environment ministry.
The tribal affairs ministry had initially rejected any dilution in the norms when the group of ministers (GoM) on coal had proposed this last May.
“The GoM’s view was that it was impossible to get the consent of 51% of the gram sabhas for a project. But the ministry had serious reservations on that,” the second official said. But after the recent representations from the power and the environment ministries, the tribal affairs ministry has reviewed its stand.
“It is a genuine concern because these are public utility projects. So we have agreed that instead of approaching gram sabhas, they can instead obtain NOCs from gram panchayats,” said the first official. “The ministry is expected to give them a final decision.”
Scindia confirmed he wrote to Deo on relaxing the FRA norms. “Yes, we are trying to resolve it,” he said. Natarajan could not be reached for a comment.
A tribal rights activist said that while the ministry is trying to differentiate between linear and non-linear projects, FRA does not define these separately and all projects need the consent of gram sabhas.
“The rights of people, even if for linear projects, need to be taken into consideration. Tomorrow, other infrastructure projects will also come forward and ask for concessions. Opening forests to exploitation will lead to further such compromises,” said Tushar Dash, a researcher with Vasundhara, an Orissa-based not-for-profit organization that’s working on forest rights and conservation.
While the relaxation in norms by the government for the expansion of CIL’s mines may cut down the total time needed for approvals, the miner still faces challenges such as land acquisition and the resettlement of displaced people.
Mines cannot be expanded immediately after obtaining environmental clearances, Rao said. “The usual process of acquiring land and resettling inhabitants, if any, will follow, and will take time, but at least one thing has been simplified,” he added.
Since Rao took over the reins at CIL, output has improved, said Ashok Kumar Khurana, a former bureaucrat and director general of the Association of Power Producers lobby group.
“The recent policy initiative—a welcome move by all means—will translate into accelerated production growth only if CIL is able to deploy its resources rapidly enough to cash it, and more importantly, if the railways can provide more rakes to evacuate coal from the mines,” he said.
To achieve the fiscal 2013 target of about 470 mt, the miner has to produce in the last 77 days of the fiscal year at least 10 mt more than it did in the last two-and-a-half months of 2011-12, according to Rao.