Home / Politics / Policy /  Environment ministry says now up to industry to perform

New Delhi: Soon after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government assumed power in May, industry lobby group Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) handed the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) a list of around 60 projects that it said needed urgent action to remove hurdles in securing environment, forest and other green clearances.

Seven months on, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) led by Prakash Javadekar has addressed at least 55 of those action points, a senior government official said, adding it is now up to industry to “perform".

In the run-up to the April-May general election, Indian industry complained that delays in securing environmental clearance were stalling projects and stymieing economic growth, and was told by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi that he would make it easier to do business in India—a pledge he has kept since becoming prime minister.

The CII’s list of 60 action points, submitted to the PMO in August, sought urgent action from the government to ensure that the “process for environment, forest and wildlife clearances from MoEF can be streamlined".

Since then, the process to streamline clearances has been led by the PMO’s principal secretary Nripendra Misra, who held a meeting on 13 August with secretaries of the departments of ministry of environment and forests (MoEF), petroleum and natural gas, coal, road transport and highways, steel, power, shipping and officials from the cabinet secretariat.

In the meeting, it was noted that many projects had been pending for a long time because of “cumbersome procedure and difficult mechanism" of clearances. It was also noted that “many projects were getting derailed or substantially delayed leading to huge cost escalation and non-viability." The document with the list of 60 action points, a copy of which is with Mint, was forwarded to MoEF for quick action.

The document listed specific changes in policies that industry sought, and between August and December, the PMO repeatedly sought Action Taken Reports to monitor progress.

“By December end, action on 95% of those proposals had been taken. Whatever is left will also be completed soon. Now industry can’t accuse environment ministry of being an impediment in India’s growth story. Instead, the onus now would be on them to perform," a top environment ministry official said requesting anonymity.

Action on those 55 points included some policy changes, some clarifications and notifications and some circulars to ease the green clearance process.

For example, the environment ministry has launched an online system for environment and forest clearances, devolved powers to state governments, advised states to create land banks for compensatory forestation, and clarified that no forest clearance is required for carrying out preliminary surveys for projects in wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.

It has clarified that it won’t be putting any condition on corporate social responsibility (CSR)-related expenditure while giving forest clearances and announced relaxations in obtaining TOR (terms of reference) for highway expansion projects. For linear projects, it has done away with the requirement of getting Stage I forest clearance before environment clearance and that of obtaining environment clearance again at the time of mine renewal.

The official said the ministry has issued a circular that categorized environment clearance conditions for different phases of project implementation—pre-construction, post construction and life of projects—which it believes will help clear up any confusion.

These issues were also flagged with a high-level committee set up by the environment ministry to look into India’s six main green laws.

“A lot of other changes to ease procedures for everyone, strengthening regulations and ending the Inspector Raj (red tape) will be taken in the next few months. The ministry has already started consultation work to implement the recommendations of the high level committee. Within the next few months, whatever problems areas are left will also be addressed," said the environment ministry official.

CII, which led the project welcomed the government’s efforts and said changes introduced in last few months would take around a year to show substantive results.

CII director general Chandrajit Banerjee said the issue of streamlining environment and forests clearances has been addressed through the “effective deployment" of e-governance.

“This is bound to add transparency, efficiency and accountability to the system. It is very clear that this government is action-oriented," said Banerjee.

“As e-governance has a potential to resolve most of the administrative and procedural challenges, the dedicated portal for online submission of project proposals for environment and forests clearances is a welcome step. Over the past few months, various circulars and office memorandums have been issued by the ministry of environment, forests and climate change, providing clarity on various regulations. We expect about a year for these simplifications to show substantive results," Banerjee said.

Asked what further steps Indian industry expects from the Modi government, Banerjee said, “Timelines for various steps involved during environment clearance has already been defined by law and it is important to appraise the project within those timelines adding further support to ease of doing business in India."

“Wherever detailed timelines are not defined—for example in case of certain processes under the forests and wildlife clearances—it would be desirable to define these as well," he added.

Sanjay Upadhyay, an environmental lawyer who took the Modi government to court last year, said, “In the past few months, we have seen a clear focus towards facilitations of growth but nowhere facilitation for environmental protection which is against the public position of environment ministry of balancing growth and environment protection. This process of, ministry fulfilling industry wish-list, is a testimony to that only."

“No one is against growth, transparency or simplification of procedures. Of these 60 points, some clarifications were required. But what is happening is dilution of regulations in name of simplification of procedures," said Upadhyay.

Upadhyay runs the Enviro Legal Defence Firm which took the government to Supreme court over the improper constitution of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) in 2014, following which Javadekar’s ministry had to appoint more members to the NBWL.

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