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New Delhi: Taking a hard line with violators, the environment ministry on Friday proposed stiff penalties—a minimum fine of 5 crore and imprisonment of seven years—for anyone found causing substantial environmental damage.

The fine can go up to 20 crore and the imprisonment can even extend to a life term in case of more serious violations.

The penalties are part of the draft Environment Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2015, which the ministry has put online, inviting objections and suggestions over the next 15 days.

The bill is expected to be tabled in Parliament during the winter session.

The draft bill is the first major move by the Prakash Javadekar-led ministry to tackle violation of environmental laws. So far, the minister has been perceived to be soft on industry, giving green norms the go-by when handing out clearances.

The draft proposes a minimum penalty of 5 crore for anyone found causing substantial damage to the environment in a radius of 5km from the outer perimeter of a project, which can extend to 10 crore and, in the case of continuing damage, entail an additional penalty of 50 lakh per day.

The additional penalty kicks in if, for instance, a violator fails to take remedial action after an adverse event happens.

For anyone found causing substantial environmental damage to the environment in a 5-10km radius from a project, the proposed penalty ranges between 10 crore and 15 crore, with an additional penalty of 75 lakh per day of continued damage.

In cases where the damage goes beyond a 10km radius from the project site, the penalty to be levied will be 15-20 crore, with an additional 1 crore per day for continued damage.

The draft also proposes a minimum of seven years’ imprisonment and a maximum of life imprisonment for those responsible for causing substantial environmental damage.

The fine for a minor violation is in the range of 1,000-10,000, with an additional penalty of 5,000 for every day that the violation continues after its detection.

In the case of non-substantial damage, the violator will have to cough up 1 lakh, extendable to 5 crore, and pay an additional penalty of 1 lakh per day of continued damage.

The draft defines substantial damage to the environment as any act of direct violation and omission of statutory environmental laws which can adversely affect the environment.

A minor violation is an act of omission or commission by a person causing environmental damage due to failure of compliance with green laws.

And a violation which can neither be termed minor nor substantial will be construed as non-substantial damage.

The penalties will be decided by a committee that the bill proposes.

The factors to be considered by the committee while deciding on penalties will be the quantum of damage caused, disproportionate gain, unfair advantage, repetitive nature of damage and the extent of injury caused to the public, other living organisms, property and public health.

According to a senior environment ministry official who did not want to be named, “The draft bill was discussed in the Prime Minister’s Office last week after which the decision to seek public opinion was taken."

Under the present Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, anyone found violating environmental laws can be fined 1 lakh and imprisoned for up to five years (extendable to seven years).

“With these amendments, we are introducing the concept of monetary penalty for violations and contraventions. Substantial damage will continue to attract penal provisions, besides stiff monetary penalties," the official explained.

He added that the heavy penalties along with court proceedings are meant to create a deterrent for violators.

The draft bill also suggests that the amount collected from violators be used for remediation and reclamation of polluted sites, and improvement of the environment.

Environmentalists, while welcoming the enhanced penalties, expressed apprehension over the formation of the committee, stating that it seemed to be a dilution of the National Green Tribunal Act.

“There are two simple points: while enhancement of penalties is most welcome because they were long overdue, the problem with this draft is the categories of penalties proposed. The rationale behind creating a selection committee is also not clear. This could also be an attempt to dilute the jurisdiction of the National Green Tribunal," said Manoj Misra, convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, a non-governmental organization.

Misra said rather than strengthening the toothless pollution boards, the environment ministry was proposing a committee.

“It seems like a hurried step," he added.

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