Draft rules show plan to cut green safeguards
Some of the controversial aspects of the environment draft are actually amendments the government tried to get through, only to be scotched by legal challenges.Updated: May 16, 2019 10:45 IST
An initial draft of a notification on environmental approvals that was released on April 15, and which has come to light now, could, if approved as a final notification, significantly dilute the process through which projects are granted green clearances.
Some of the more controversial aspects of the draft are actually amendments the government tried to get through, only to be scotched by legal challenges. If approved in the final notification, they will come into force.
The so-called “zero draft of the environment impact assessment notification 2019” is attached to an office memorandum (OM) of the environment ministry released on April 15, at a time when the Lok Sabha elections were underway — raising questions on the need for haste in pushing these through.
Most development and infrastructure projects need an Environmental Impact Assessment, or EIA.
The draft notification states that “the principal notification has undergone substantial changes over the years, the ministry has decided to re-engineer the entire notification in line with the amendments issued, office memorandums (OMs) and circulars issued from time to time and the experience gained over the years in the implementation of EIA notification.”
The OM dated April 15, enclosed with the draft notification, has sought comments from the state governments within a month’s time. If notified, this will replace the EIA notification of 2006 which is the regulation in place for environmental clearance of all infrastructure and development projects.
The draft notification 2019 was shared by environmental activist Vikrant Tongad on Wednesday. “A source shared it with me. But it’s not on the ministry website. I think the ministry wants to do whatever it can to ensure ease of doing business,” Tongad said.
Many of the clauses in the zero draft were introduced as amendments by the ministry earlier but challenged in court because of their impact on environmental regulation. But these disputed clauses have found space in the draft notification 2019.
Geeta Menon, joint secretary, environment ministry, confirmed that the draft had been sent to secretaries of states and comments are awaited. HT reported on May 13 about a compilation of official documents related to EIA between December 2014 and January 2019 published by the environment ministry which shows environmental clearance processes across industrial sectors had been eased since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) assumed office. For example, the draft notification 2019 gives authority to the district level environment impact assessment authority (DEIAA), headed by the district magistrate or district collector, to appraise district-level projects, grant or reject environmental clearance. On March 15, 2016, the ministry, for the first time, delegated the authority to grant environmental clearances for up to five hectares of individual mining lease of minor minerals and 25 hectares in clusters to the DEIAA.
The decision was challenged in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) because experts said district authorities lacked expertise in assessing the environmental impact of mining.
But in this draft DEIAA has extensive powers, at par with the Expert Appraisal Committee and the state-level expert appraisal committee.
The draft also states that environmental clearances can be transferred during their validity and that projects can also be split and transferred with an approval from the EAC.
The expansion of all projects up to 50% of the existing capacity in various sectors will also be exempted from any kind of public consultation if the draft is passed. This covers modernization of irrigation projects, roads and highways where no further acquisition of land is involved, maintenance dredging, expansion of underground mining without increase in mining lease area and many others.
“The part on exemption from public consultation is longer that the portion which lays out the requirements for this process. With this the government is signaling that interface with affected people and concerned citizen is an encumbrance and therefore should be minimized. Expansion and capacity enhancement projects must go before the public for feedback on performance and compliance. Recent experiences like what happened in Sterlite in Tamil Nadu are telling examples of why such interactions are critical,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher with Centre for Policy Research (CPR).
The draft also gives local bodies such as municipalities, urban development authorities and district panchayats the authority to grant building permission for building or construction projects with a built-up area of more than 20,000 sq metres and less than 50,000 sq metres. The environment ministry introduced this clause through a draft notification in March 2018 but it was challenged on environmental grounds and later stayed by the Delhi high court.
“This EIA notification has been one of the most publicly engaged environmental laws in the country. For the environment ministry not to let this experience weigh in on the draft notification does not auger well for democratic decision making. If the draft is put out for public comments after comments from state governments have been reconciled there is little scope for substantial reviews or changes.The re-engineered draft claims to reconcile the changes made to the notification since its last substantial overhaul in 2006 which itself was extremely controversial,” added Kohli.