Green clearances: Don’t dilute the process
Development is necessary but diluting green safeguards will have harmful consequences for the nation and its people. Even a strong economy will find it challenging to offset this damage
On January 17, the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change told states that it plans to rank them, specifically the state environment impact assessment authorities (SEIAAs), on the speed with which they accord environmental clearances (EC) to development projects. The SEIAA rankings will be based on six parameters: The average number of days taken by an SEIAA to accept proposals, seeking either EC or terms of reference (ToR) for projects; the number of complaints addressed by the authority; the percentage of cases for which site visits are carried out by either SEIAAs or state expert appraisal committees; the percentage of cases in which the authority seeks additional information from project proponents more than once; the disposal percentage of proposals, seeking fresh or amended ToRs that are older than 30 days; and the disposal percentage of proposals seeking fresh or amended EC that are older than 120 days. SEIAAs are responsible for providing clearance for a bulk of the infrastructure, development and industrial projects.
The order, as an environmental lawyer told this newspaper, is “absurd”. It is. This is because the focus of the rating seems to be more on clearing projects quickly than doing due diligence, and pits one state against another to earn the “business-friendly” tag. Earlier, the ministry had cut the time required for providing EC to a project from 105 days to 75 days to “streamline clearance processes’’. The latest order also goes against the ministry’s mandate of protecting India’s environment and natural resources, which are under enormous stress. Besides the focus on reducing time for clearances may encourage SEIAAs to shortcut public hearings, one of the critical provisions of the EA process that provide project-affected people an avenue to ask tough questions and raise objections.
The ministry is amending fundamental environmental laws of the country, including the biodiversity act, the forest act, and the wildlife act. This order is a part of that process. Development is necessary but diluting green safeguards will have harmful consequences for the nation and its people. Even a strong economy will find it challenging to offset this damage.