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Environment ministry must close the ‘pollute and pay’ window for industries

New environment clearance notification should follow the required procedure of public hearings

opinion Updated: May 30, 2017 13:17 IST
The March notification is not the first attempt by the MoEFCC to dilute public hearings. Under the last few years of the UPA government, public hearing requirements for several projects were done away with. The trend continued with the NDA (Representative Photo)
The March notification is not the first attempt by the MoEFCC to dilute public hearings. Under the last few years of the UPA government, public hearing requirements for several projects were done away with. The trend continued with the NDA (Representative Photo)(AFP)

The ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) has for three years now watered down the requirement for various industrial projects to conduct public hearings with affected communities. And they don’t seem to be done yet.

Recently, the ministry announced a six-month period for industrial projects that have been operating in violation of environmental laws to effectively obtain post-facto clearances. What this means is that projects that have deliberately flouted the law, potentially causing environmental damage, can now pay a penalty and regularise their operations.

Worse, it is unclear if the notification now allows these companies to again bypass the public hearings they are required to conduct as part of the process to obtain an environmental clearance (EC).

Public hearings, which were established as part of the EC process by an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification from the ministry in 2006, are often the only avenue for people affected by projects to put forth their concerns. The notification requires the concerned pollution control authority, usually state pollution control boards, to advertise the hearing widely, including by publishing notice of the hearing in at least one major national and one regional language newspaper. In areas where there are no newspapers, authorities are required to use drum-beating and radio/television advertisements to publicise public hearings and concerned company is required to submit copies of the draft EIA report and summaries to various district-level authorities. These authorities are in turn required to provide documents available for public inspection.

In many cases, the public hearings are not satisfactorily held. In 2015, Amnesty International India’s research on three mines run by Coal India found that public consultations suffered from serious flaws. All these concerns were borne out late last year by a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on Environment Clearance and Post-Clearance Mining. The report found widespread deficiencies and irregularities in 62 out of 196 of developmental projects that received environment clearance. The fact that nearly a third of the projects examined did not conduct public hearings properly displays the callousness of authorities.

The March notification is not the first attempt by the MoEFCC to dilute public hearings. Under the last few years of the UPA government, public hearing requirements for several projects were done away with. The trend continued with the NDA. In 2012 and 2013, the ministry issued office memorandums that sought to provide post-facto environment clearance to companies. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) quashed the office memorandums (OMs) stating that they were executive instructions that could not replace the requirements of the EIA notification and that they amounted to permitting what was otherwise prohibited by law. The NGT upheld the spirit of the EIA notification. However, the present notification is another attempt to dress up the OMs in different clothes.

The MoEFCC must clearly mention that public hearings are compulsorily held even where post-facto environmental clearances are sought to be given. Otherwise, the notification undermines environmental safeguards, and jeopardises the rights of the communities. Punitive action must be taken against projects operating without environment clearances, and adequate remedy provided to affected communities.

B Karthik Navayan is manager, business and human rights, Amnesty International India

The views expressed are personal