New Delhi: On a day it took the environment approval process online, the new government proposed diluting the norms for allowing industrial units in forest areas, moving to clear a logjam in project mandates that industry groups allege has contributed to declining economic growth.

Not only will it make the process of environment clearances easier, the norms, once changed, will also enable expansion of industrial projects held up because of land shortages. The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) is proposing to reduce the number of parameters defining a forest as inviolate from the existing six to four.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had, in the run-up to the April-May general elections, promised to accelerate environmental procedures and work to reduce conflict between development and environmental objectives.

On Thursday, environmental activists were quick to condemn the proposed dilution of the norms.

Environment minister Prakash Javadekar told a conference on World Environment Day that the process of online submission of documents for environment clearances, which he had announced when he took charge of the ministry on 29 May, had become operational on Thursday. “From 1 July, the process will become online completely and there will be no need to visit the office," the environment minister said.

The minister added that the period in between will be the transition phase, during which the ministry will accept paper as well as online applications.

Javadekar said last week that the ministry would initiate the same process for forest clearances soon. He added that this was being done to ensure that timelines are met, the application process is transparent, and enable real time monitoring of stage-wise clearances.

The environment and forests ministry, rejigged as the environment, forests and climate change ministry, was criticized for delaying approvals and failing to adhere to timelines during the tenure of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). That stalled many industrial projects in an economy that has posted less than 5% growth for two consecutive years.

Separately, a senior government official, who requested anonymity, said the parameters for identifying forest land as violate or inviolate are set to be reduced.

At present, there are six parameters: the quality and the type of the forest areas and the produce they generate, the biodiversity, hydrological, social, aesthetic and economic values of the produce.

The same official said the four parameters that were being considered included biodiversity richness and wildlife value, forest cover, forest type and landscape integrity.

The proposal was opposed by environmentalists.

“We cannot dilute any parameters, and we must move fast, and decisively to notify such inviolate areas, as we are losing water catchment areas, forests, and wildlife habitats at a very fast rate," said Prerna Singh Bindra, a former member of the standing committee of National Board for Wildlife.

The official cited above denied that the changes amount to dilution of norms. “The parameters are not being diluted, they are being rationalized," the official said.

Hydrological value is implicit in the parameter on forest cover, said the official, adding that the thicker the forest, the more will be the hydrological value.

“Though forests are the key for hydrological value, we also need to consider other ecosystems like grasslands and wetlands, which have a hydrological value but are not defined as forests," said Bindra.

Under the landscape integrity, a continuous landscape will have more value as compared to a fragmented landscape.

During his term as environment minister in the UPA regime, Jairam Ramesh had introduced the “go" and “no-go" classification of forest areas.

While industrial or development activity could be allowed in go areas, no-go areas were out of bounds.

The go, no-go classification did not have a legal fiat and was later replaced with “violate" and “inviolate" areas.

Infrastructure ministries, including the coal ministry, had disputed the “no-go" classification on grounds that it was unscientific.

A report made public by the environment ministry in January 2013 said the ministry would finalize the list and maps of inviolate areas in each state and union territory and notify them under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

The report said all the protected areas, which occupy 4.9% of India’s total geographical area, will be treated as inviolate.

It added that the six parameters will be scored on a scale of 0-100 each. The country will be divided into 1kmx1km grids and for each grid, scores based on the parameters will be assigned. “Based on the threshold average score, each grid would be assigned the attribute of ‘inviolate’ as necessary," it said.

All the grids falling in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, areas within 1km of protected areas, and compact patches of very dense forests, among others, will be considered inviolate. “Grid whose average score exceeds 70 (out of 100) shall also be labelled as inviolate," the report said.

This will have to be reworked if the ministry presses ahead with the proposal to dilute the environment norms.

Javadekar on Thursday said the new government was committed to reduce the industrial waste that flows into water bodies without being treated.

“But clean water, solid waste management and clean air are our priorities and are for our benefit. We will make it a public movement in the days to come," he said.

The minister said he had written to all the newly elected members of Parliament to take up environmental awareness programmes in their constituencies. On issue of climate change, Javadekar said that the country wants real action to happen and energy efficiency would be the central theme.

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