India is set to get a national regulator for appraising projects, enforce environmental conditions for approvals and impose penalties on polluters. However a vital aspect of entire process — approval— — will continue to remain with the minister in-charge.
Environment minister Jairam Ramesh has been under constant criticism from his Cabinet colleagues for slow pace of environment clearances hampering India's economic growth. Coal and power sector projects have taken two to five years to get the ministry's approval.
In a note circulated for Cabinet's consideration, the environment ministry has proposed to abandon its project appraisal role and delegate the entire approval process to an independent body, the National Environment Assessment and Monitoring Authority (NEAMA).
But, the role of NEAMA will be recommendatory with the environment minister having powers to take a final call. In a way, the new authority will appraise the project professionally, but the power to whether accept or reject their recommendations will continue to vest with the politician in-charge of the ministry, a discretion which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wanted to check.
Singh in August 2009 had proposed National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA) having powers to decide on projects independent of the minister. Subsequently, the ministry asked IIT Delhi to prepare a report for setting up NEPA. The IIT recommended setting up of NEAMA instead of NEPA with an important change — final powers will remain with the minister.
Now, the ministry has cirulated a Cabinet note seeking setting up of NEAMA having powers to appraise projects, monitor compliance and evaluating the coastal zone management plans to be submitted by the state governments.
"The dual role of the government in both appraisal and approval is avoidable and a specialised agency can better deliver in terms of conducting science and economics based appraisal of projects," the note said, while justifying to have the ministry powers to approve projects.