New Delhi: Six years after it was directed by the Supreme Court, the central government is yet to set up a national environment regulator to ensure independent oversight of green clearances.

Interestingly, both the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have dragged their feet , despite repeated reminders from the apex court.

What is worrying environmentalists is that there has been no let up in green clearances in this period.

“It’s sad that in the hurry for ease of business, an important and significant national independent institution, directed by the Supreme Court, has been put on hold. Is the Supreme Court listening?" said Sanjay Upadhyay, an environmental advocate in the Supreme Court and managing partner of the Enviro Legal Defence Firm, an environmental law firm that also deals with training, education, publishing and outreach work.

To be sure, part of the reason for the delay has been the resistance from states, who fear that an independent regulator would encroach upon their rights.

The need for an environment regulator was established by the apex court in its landmark Lafarge judgement in July 2011. The court had said that, “the Central Government should appoint a National Regulator for appraising projects, enforcing environmental conditions for approvals and to impose penalties on polluters". The case was about cement company Lafarge mining in a Meghalaya forest.

Soon after, the environment ministry floated a concept paper to set up a regulator. However, the proposal was nixed within the ministry.

After several reminders from the apex court, the government was given a final extension of six months in January 2015. However, this deadline too has passed.

“We had told the apex court about the report of the expert panel headed by former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian, which recommended creation of an environment authority at the national level, and its counterparts in the states and Union territories. We sought six months to examine committee’s recommendations and finalize the framework of the proposed regulator/authority," said a senior ministry official, who did not wish to be identified.

The report of the panel was submitted to the ministry in November 2014. Despite not officially accepting the report, the ministry has begun to implement it in a piecemeal manner—but there has been no move to set up an independent regulator.

“The issues involved are complex and require a review of major laws related to environment. TSR report is yet to be accepted. Thus there has been no movement on regulator so far," the official added.

Environmentalists allege that the ministry is deliberately delaying the formation of a green regulator.

“There has been a debate about whether the regulator is the answer to the problems plaguing the environment clearance process. The regulator will be burdened by a inadequate legal framework and the push for granting approvals. But despite all that, the ministry surely needs to make its current position clear on this matter. It cannot keep sitting on it even as numerous decisions are being taken to simplify green laws for ease of business," said Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the Namati Environmental Justice Programme of the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.

Timeline

July 2011: Supreme Court directs the central government to appoint a national environment regulator.

Sep 2013: SC asks the centre by when its order will be complied with.

Nov 2013: Environment ministry tells the SC that it is considering the court’s suggestions.

Jan 2014: SC tells the centre to appoint the regulator by March 2014.

Nov 2014: SC asks the environment ministry to appoint the regulator within three weeks.

Dec 2014: Environment ministry seeks six months’ extension.

Jan 2015: SC gives the extension.

Since Jan 2015: Regulator still not appointed.

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