It is no longer a surprise when the process of environment and forest clearance of development projects is referred to as a ‘bottleneck’. It seems to be a perpetual refrain of the project developers racing to mark their newly-acquired territories with chimney stacks and turbines Government of India (GoI) playing the referee. Only this game is increasingly without any rules. Precautionary clauses are called hurdles and impacts on the poor and the environment are collateral casualties.
The latest in the offing is the November 10, 2008, report of the Finance Ministry’s ‘Expert Group to Examine the Scheme of Statutory Clearances for Industrial and Infrastructure Projects in India’, a document marked ‘secret’ but now secretly open as its recommendations are about to be realised by the newly-elected government. The document reveals that the expert group was carved out of the Prime Minister’s promise to find ways to speed up clearances to development projects at the 54th meeting of the National Development Council in December 2007.
The Secretary of the Department of Economic Affairs chaired this committee which comprised representatives from the CII, Ficci and Assocham. Strangely, the representative of the CII is also the present head of WWF-India, a leading nature conservation organisation. The Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services and Infrastructure Development Finance Company and the India Infrastructure Finance Company Ltd, a few officials from the Department of Industrial Policy and Planning and the Planning Commission also found seats as experts on this committee.
The recommendations of the expert group and the Ministry’s new proposal made through a draft notification in January 2009, two months after the expert group finalised its report, are cause for grave concern to social justice and environmental groups. Qualitative impact assessment procedures have been reduced already to meaningless ‘green’ approvals since they are said to cause ‘time and cost overruns’.
In order to prevent what it calls “roving hearings”, the group has recommended that standard questionnaires be distributed in advance and a public hearing be held only if issues of dispute are apparent in information collected through these. It has also been recommended that agencies like the state industrial development boards (SIDBs) be allowed to conduct hearings, which have so far only been done by pollution control boards. This recommendation, if realised, will systematically bring the practice of public hearings, the only open space in an otherwise bureaucratic formality, to an end. Allowing SIDBs to conduct hearings will also bias the outcome of such hearings, if held, in favour of industry.
Another problematic recommendation is the standardisation of the Terms of Reference (ToR) for “repetitive projects”. The ToRs were added to the scoping stage so that the basic requirements of an Environmental Impact Assessment can be developed based on project-specific and site-related parameters. To recommend that all projects with similar technology be issued a standard ToR shows the understanding of impact assessment procedures merely as a common inventory of items that need to be collected for a decision to be made. It is akin to collecting and submitting all required documents to obtain a passport or running a common set of diagnostic tests irrespective of which part of the body is suffering from an ailment. With each new project of similar or varied kind that is added to an area, the ToR is likely to change as the physical landscape and the socio-cultural parameters have been altered.
Finally, but most significant, is the recommendation for deemed clearance, that is of clearance obtained automatically if the Ministry of Environment and Forest fails to complete the clearance process within an identified time period. With a ministry that is crumbling under the weight of a huge number of pending project files, this clause will offer the shortest route for undeserving projects to dodge the scanner.
To make speed of clearances central to the review of impact assessment and clearance procedures is as good as not having these procedures at all. A qualitative process such as this cannot deliver good decisions if time is short.
(Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon are members of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group)