New Delhi: The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has been asked about delays in projects by the coal ministry, shortly after the highways authority asked it about road works that have been stuck over green issues.

The environment ministry replied to the coal ministry on 17 January, detailing the reasons for which the projects had been delayed. The letter was reviewed by Mint.

“Most of the projects they have listed are lying with the state governments," said a senior government official on condition of anonymity.

The exchange comes in the wake of the environment ministry being targeted for being a drag on infrastructure projects over various kinds of approvals, although most of these conditions have been imposed as a protection against human rights violations and ecological degradation in many parts of the country as a result of uncontrolled mining and other forms of exploitation.

The coal ministry enquiry was regarding stage II forest clearance of five projects. Of these, two or three are with the respective state governments. The environment ministry has already accorded clearance for one, which calls for diversion of around 195 hectares (ha) of forest land.

Apart from that, “forest clearance for a project which demands diversion of around 29 ha of forest land has been withdrawn since the documents demanded by the proponent were not submitted", said the official cited above.

Forest clearance is accorded in two stages, of which stage I is in-principle approval. Stage II is the final clearance, after all conditions stipulated by the ministry while giving stage I clearance have been met.

The coal ministry had also said that 14 coal projects await stage I clearance. “Eight out of these 14 are lying with the state governments at various stages," said another official requesting anonymity.

Forest clearances generally take longer than environment ones because compliance with the Forest Rights’ Act (FRA) has to be ensured. Under FRA, the project’s promoters have to obtain no-objection certificates (NOCs) from 50% of all gram sabhas of villages that will be affected by a project to be able to get a forest clearance from the environment ministry.

FRA, when it was notified in 2008, gave more powers to gram sabhas, incorporating provisions on recognition of forest dwellers’ rights to conserve and manage community forest resources. Gram sabhas are nodal agencies that have to certify that their rights are not being violated by a particular project.

The coal ministry has also sent a list of suggestions to the environment ministry to expedite clearance of projects. This includes relaxing the FRA norm that requires gram sabha consent. “We have said that a panel has been established under the principal secretary to the Prime Minister to consider this proposal," the first official cited said.

Another suggestion relates to the formation of multiple forest advisory committees (FACs), said a third government official who requested anonymity. As of now, there is one FAC in the environment ministry that considers proposals from all sectors such as coal, roads, power projects, etc. Other ministries have also sought multiple FACs. The coal ministry also wants the environment ministry to relax norms for prospecting of coal mines. The government is diluting environmental regulations in the country, alleged R. Sreedhar, chairperson, Mines, Minerals and People, an alliance of groups working among communities affected by mining.

“The whole environmental governance has become very despotic. The govt doesn’t seem to take this issue seriously. If the cabinet committee on investments (CCI) wants to overcome clearances, they should do away with the whole ministry. What is the use? When environment ministry cannot regulate clearances, why is it in existence?" he said.

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) had recently said 26 projects are pending with the environment ministry for clearances.

Officials in the roads and power ministries have also been pushing for a relaxation in FRA norms for linear projects, so called because they run in a line, such as roads and highways and power transmission lines that pass through various villages.

Mint reported 15 January that the tribal affairs ministry has agreed for an in-principle nod to allow a few concessions in FRA for linear projects such as power transmission lines, roads and railways.

CCI was set up to speed up decisions on big projects having been originally proposed as the National Investment Board).

Aman Malik contributed to this story.

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