New Delhi: In the past couple of years, the environment ministry has taken several measures to ease green clearance norms for railway projects.
Now, it has locked horns with the railway ministry over forest clearances required for the expansion of railway projects.
According to a senior railway ministry official, who did not wish to be identified, around 15 projects worth Rs10,000 crore, involving gauge conversion and doubling-tripling of railway lines, have been delayed because forest and wildlife clearances are still pending from the Anil Madhav Dave-led ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC).
The main point of contention between the two ministries is the requirement of forest clearances for building a project on forest land, or rail tracks passing through wildlife corridors. While the railway ministry believes that the requirement of forest clearance for conversion from metre to broad gauge should be done away with, the green ministry is insisting on strict environmental safeguards.
Stressing the need for doing away with forest clearances for the modernization of existing projects, the railway ministry official said: “What is the need for fresh forest clearance when we are only taking up conversion from metre to broad gauge in our project?"
“The land is owned by us and Railways Act gives us powers to take up the work. The land is already being used for non-forest purpose as the metre gauge line is operational. We are only expanding the project and starting the forest clearance process from scratch is not only time-consuming but resulting in long delays," the official added.
The issue has already been discussed once at the Prime Minister’s Office and also in detail at the cabinet secretariat on Friday to clear differences between the two ministries.
But the environment ministry is not convinced.
“We cannot allow projects to go through without the strict green clearance process. If we allow them to expand projects without a proper process, it would not only be legally wrong but also could have harmful impact on the wildlife and pristine forest area… This is important as we are trying to not only protect our pristine forests but also increase them," said a senior green ministry official, who also declined to be identified.
“We need to assess the effect of any new activity that would be undertaken by railways. Only then would we be able to suggest proper mitigation measures to ensure minimum damage to the forest and wildlife," the official added.
A smooth green clearance process for road, rail and industrial projects has been a focus area for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government since it took power in May 2014.
Keeping that in mind, former environment minister Prakash Javadekar had taken several measures to simplify the green clearance process for linear projects such as roads and railways.
Another point of concern for the railway ministry is the NDA government’s focus on railway projects in the north-east region, where several of the stalled projects are to be implemented.
“We are open to simplification of rules, but doing away with them may not be entirely possible, otherwise the ministry would land in legal trouble. There are more meetings expected to solve the tussle and achieve clarity… It is time to wait and watch," the green ministry official added.