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New Delhi: The environment ministry has rejected the highways ministry’s plan to dilute environment norms.

The environment ministry said it cannot accept the highways ministry’s suggestion to simplify the process of obtaining approvals for road projects in forest areas.

“It is the government’s commitment that FRA (Forest Rights Act) compliance should happen," environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan told reporters on Friday. “Local community involvement and gram sabha (village council) consent are important."

A highways ministry official had earlier said the process of getting approvals from village councils was leading to delays in expanding roads in forest areas.

More than 300 road projects are pending with the environment ministry for clearance.

The highways ministry sent a list of suggestions to the environment ministry in August to speed up clearances for road projects, including simplification of approvals under FRA.

It also suggested that forest clearances be delinked from environment clearances for road projects. In cases where a road passes through a forest area, environmental clearance for the road is given only after forest clearance is obtained.

“We have cited the Lafarge judgement of the Supreme Court in this case," said a top environment ministry official, who requested anonymity, adding that the judgement made it impossible to de-link the two clearances. “However, we have told them that they are welcome to approach the Supreme Court."

Mint reported on 31 August that the environment ministry was expected to cite this 2011 Supreme Court ruling in its reply to the highways ministry.

On 6 July 2011, the Supreme Court in a ruling incorporated the recommendation of the environment ministry that “in cases where environment clearance is required for a project on forest land, the forest clearance shall be obtained before the grant of the environment clearance."

The ruling was in a case involving French cement maker Lafarge SA. The apex court allowed the company to mine limestone in the forests of the East Khasi hills in Meghalaya for its cement plant in Bangladesh.

In its list of suggestions to the environment ministry, the highways ministry also recommended the drafting of uniform terms of reference (ToR) to grant environment clearances for all road projects. ToR forms the basis for the environment impact assessment of any project.

Currently, an expert appraisal committee of the environment ministry determines ToR individually for each project.

The environment ministry official cited above said that there was no need for a standardised ToR as “there are 37 sectoral manuals which already exist". The official said the manuals describe the ToR procedure for all conditions and they are very clear.

Several departments say the environment ministry is to blame for delays in clearances. Finance minister P. Chidambaram last week chaired a meeting of ministers and senior officials of the road transport and highways, mines, power, and environment and forests ministries to discuss clearing bottlenecks in infrastructure projects. The above issues were also raised at that meeting.

Road transport and highways minister C.P. Joshi told reporters after the meeting that the suggestions of the ministry were well-received by the environment ministry.

Ministry officials couldn’t be reached for comment on the environment ministry’s rejection of its proposal.

With availability of funds getting more difficult as well, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) was able to award road projects of just 567km in length until July, against a target of 9,000km for this fiscal year.

Arranging funds for road projects could get tougher because of another directive of the environment ministry requiring environment impact assessments for all quarrying of earth and stone undertaken for building highways, according to a lobby of road developers.

M. Murali, director general of the National Highway Builders Federation said banks reassessing a project’s viability could decide not to give loans after considering prevailing market conditions, and that developers stood to lose the guarantee amounts paid to NHAI.

Previously, only those mining or quarrying operations for road projects that exceeded five hectares of land needed environment impact assessments.

The lobby group sought concessional periods from the highways ministry if environmental clearances could not be procured or finances arranged in time because of the new norms, it said in a letter to Joshi on Thursday.

The lobby also asked that NHAI, while seeking environment clearances for road projects, include approvals for quarries as well.

An NHAI official, who did not want to be named, said the authority has communicated the problem to the highways ministry. The market for highways projects has declined down substantially, the official added.

Mint’s Rahul Chandran contributed to this story.

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