New Delhi: Errant projects that came up without a mandatory environment clearance (EC) were given a one-time chance for regularization last year by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government ministry but now it is going one step ahead by allowing states to expedite disposal of such regularization requests, said environmentalists who likened it to making victims out of violators.
In March 2017, the union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) published a notification giving a one time opportunity to projects that started without EC to seek regularization. But it held that those projects that came up at sites where they are not permissible under law would be closed.
The MoEFCC decision in 2017 as well as the initial draft notification in 2016 through which ministry had first proposed such action had come under intense criticism from environmentalists. They argued that it would mean giving a retrospective approval to errant projects, unduly favour violators, encourage fait accompli and dilute the deterrent effect of environmental rules.
After the March 2017 notification, MoEFCC was flooded with such regularisation requests and as per a senior MoEFCC officer, who sought anonymity, “the number of such cases seeking regularization is over 2,000," maintaining that the idea is to not encourage but rein in violators.
“We are following a process of decentralization," the official added.
Under its Environmental Impact Assessment notification 2006, MoEFCC gives or rejects EC to projects of different categories like coal mining, non–coal mining, river valley projects, infrastructure projects and others. All projects and activities are broadly categorized in to two categories - category A and category B, based on the spatial extent of potential impacts and potential impacts on human health and natural and man-made resources.
While category A proposals are handled by central authorities, category B projects are taken up by state level authorities. For instance, hydropower projects of over 50 megawatt capacity are category A projects while projects less than that are category B projects. But all projects related to nuclear power are category A projects.
Now the latest notification (8 March) by Harsh Vardhan-led MoEFCC stipulates that such errant projects of category A will be appraised and approved by expert panels of the union environment ministry while category B projects will be appraised and approved by “the state or union territory level Expert Appraisal Committees and state or union territory Environment Impact Assessment Authorities".
This was done because as per the March 2017 notification, all cases of violations whether category A or B were appraised by the central government.
Now MoEFCC in its latest notification stated that it “received a number of proposals relating to all sectors covered under category A and category B, for consideration".
It noted that received “representations from the public representatives and industrial associations, requesting delegation of powers to the respective states to deal with the violation cases for operational reasons and expediting the proposals". Therefore, MoEFCC said in “public interest" it did not consult with stakeholders before amending the March 2017 notification.
Experts said the NDA government’s action will only help violators.
“We now have a situation where the ministry is not just expediting approvals but also fast-tracking the appraisal of projects which are in clear violation of the environment clearance process. Those who had the opportunity to raise concerns at a public hearing earlier, will have none in this post-facto appraisal process limited to the regulatory and the project," said Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the centre for policy research (CPR)-Namati environmental justice programme..
“This process of providing a one-time amnesty to projects by the ministry was hugely criticised but was put in place in March 2017. They have already received over 2500 proposals which has created a huge backlog, allowing the violators to appear as victims of delays," Kohli added.