New Delhi: Is the ministry of environment, forests and climate change flouting established norms in its bid to clear projects at any cost?

The standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) led by environment minister Prakash Javadekar cleared at least six projects and then ordered the inspection of the project sites (instead of doing this the other way), alleged the EIA Resource and Response Centre, an environmental activist group.

A top environment ministry official, however, refuted the claims and said all rules and regulations were followed while recommending clearances.

“All projects that have been cleared are done with proper mitigation measures. The progress of all these measures will be regularly monitored," the ministry official added, asking not to be identified.

In its analysis of the minutes of the 34th meeting (on 2 June) of the NBWL standing committee, the EIA Resource and Response Centre alleged that the panel led by Javadekar “cleared projects that were rejected by the previous standing committees, approved projects without conducting site inspections, surprisingly ordered site inspections in six projects after granting clearances to them, approved proje-cts located within critical eleph-ant corridors and displayed an indulgent attitude towards non-compliant project proponents".

As per the analysis, of the six projects, three were in tiger reserves. All six were located in protected forest areas. The six projects wherein inspection was ordered post clearance are the widening of National Highway 17 (Karnala Bird Sanctuary area in Maharashtra), laying of optic fibre cable (Pasuvemula and Nellikal Reserve Forests in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh), construction of a police community building (Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh), construction of a check-dam (Kudremukh Tiger Reserve in Karnataka) and a drinking water pipeline project (Mukunda Hills Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan).

The proposal for the widening of NH17 passing through Karnala Bird Sanctuary was earlier rejected twice by the NBWL in its 17th and 29th meetings. In both instances, the proposal was opposed due to the availability of an alternative alignment.

However, the standing committee in the 34th meeting concluded that, “widening within the sanctuary will smoothen the traffic and reduce the foul emissions from recurring traffic jams, which are harmful for the birds and other wildlife".

Of the total 40 projects considered by the standing committee, at least 18 were given clearances without seeking further information or conducting a site visit, the analysis said.

“In a single short meeting, 40 new projects were discussed for clearance, of which 23 were immediately cleared and not a single project was declined. Of the projects that were considered inside protected areas, 94% (or 17 projects) were cleared. Close to 70% of the clearances awarded were for linear projects cutting across protected areas. Three of the 10 pending proposals from the 33rd NBWL standing committee meeting were granted clearance, and all three projects are located within critical elephant corridors," it said.

It added that the committee adopted a lenient attitude towards project proponents with regard to non-compliance of imposed conditions and “seems to be functioning more as a stamping house for clearances".

Experts said clearing a project and then seeking site inspection takes away the opportunity of rejection based on the opinion of independent experts or forest department officials, and only allows an opportunity to propose mitigation measures.