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NGT raps Maharashtra EIA authority over violations during infra works

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has expressed concerns over the functioning of the Maharashtra State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA), calling into question the manner in which the latter has allowed “continuous violation of environment norms in construction projects”
By Prayag Arora-Desai
PUBLISHED ON MAY 29, 2021 01:07 AM IST

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has expressed concerns over the functioning of the Maharashtra State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA), calling into question the manner in which the latter has allowed “continuous violation of environment norms in construction projects”.

NGT has raised contention over multiple construction projects in Maharashtra that have been executed without prior environmental clearance (EC), which is granted by SEIAA. Though ECs were granted initially, multiple projects have expanded the scope of construction work in variance with the original terms of clearance, and subsequently applied for ex-post facto EC. In at least two cases, SEIAA has proceeded to grant fresh EC without levying any monetary compensation for environmental damage caused by the project proponent, the NGT’s order, dated May 24, reveal.

A four-judge bench of the green court, headed by chairperson Adarsh Kumar Goel, made the observation while hearing two matters filed by an appellant, Tanaji Gambhire, concerning the ex-post facto environmental clearances granted by SEIAA last March to two projects in Pune.

Though NGT’s orders do not specify the total number of such violations that have come to its notice in Maharashtra, the court observed, “We are coming across the grievance of continuous violation of environment norms in construction projects being completed without prior EC and SEIAA Maharashtra is neither requiring demolition nor payment of assessed compensation.”

As such, “it will be appropriate to require SEIAA, Maharashtra, to review its working in the light of violations frequently being alleged, including the present case,” NGT noted.

The court also “directed the constitution of a joint committee comprising the Union environment ministry, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), SEIAA and state pollution control body to review their functioning... and also to suggest remedial action, including the quantum of compensation in the individual case.” The court also directed that “a proper standard operating procedure be laid down for grant of EC in such cases so as to address the gaps in binding law and practice being currently followed.

Experts were reluctant to back NGT’s move. “It may seem like the tribunal has taken the right step, but really it is shrugging off its own responsibility. If there is a violation, the court can easily decide on either demolition or levying environmental compensation. It can also serve a notice to SEIAA for dereliction of duty. Instead, it has instated a committee, which includes members of SEIAA, to review the authority’s functioning. This is against the principle of natural justice,” said Mumbai-based independent environmental lawyer Zaman Ali.

Vijay Shantilal Nahata, chairperson of Maharashtra SEIAA, did not respond to HT.

However, a senior official in the environment department, currently serving as an SEIAA member, said, “We are aware of the NGT order and SOPs that will be framed by the committee established by the NGT will be observed and complied with fully.”

“Post-facto clearances make a mockery of the law. It seems that statutory bodies meant to protect the environment are more interested in facilitating ease of doing business for developers, and violators are in fact encouraged to go ahead without environment clearances in such a scenario. This farce of processing applications without application of mind has been brought to light by NGT,” said Stalin D, director of non-governmental organisation Vanashakti.

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