Unified environmental approval to infrastructure projects from next year

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByJayashree Nandi
Dec 30, 2020 07:33 AM IST

Union environment secretary RP Gupta said a form for all clearances will be available and applicants need to submit uniform information based on which the panels will assess the environmental impact

New Delhi: In the new year, the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) will put in place a unified portal that will list the status of all clearances sought by the developer of any infrastructure project, including wildlife and forest consents, and coastal zone regulation.

Representational photo.
Representational photo.

Presently, these approvals need to be applied for and considered separately by three independent panels of the MoEFCC.

Developers will have to fill one form for all clearances and submit uniform information based on which the environmental impact of the project will be assessed by the panels, environment ministry secretary RP Gupta said.

“Our approvals shouldn’t be a hindrance to any infrastructure or development project. It should be approved quickly or disapproved at the earliest. This is part of the reforms we are bringing in for ease of doing business. The portal will be up by mid-next year and will be of great benefit to us and to project proponents,” Gupta said.

A policy is also being drafted to ensure the monitoring of projects that are granted clearances.

The move to improve the ease of doing business for infrastructure developers follows guidelines issued by the ministry last month to accelerate the grant of clearances associated with the environmental footprint of any project, attempting to speed up project implementation to counter the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy.

In an office memorandum (OM), the ministry said all meetings to consider green clearances should be held at least twice a month to reduce the time taken for grant of approval. Acceptance process for an application should be limited to just checking if all relevant documents have been submitted and terms of reference covered, according to the OM, a copy of which has been seen by HT.

All projects placed on the agenda should be considered by an expert appraisal committee even if project representatives are absent. Only if project representatives do not attend meetings for over six months will the member-secretary of an EAC write to the regional office of the environment ministry to check the on-ground status.

This is only one among several significant reforms that the environment ministry has made this year to the environmental governance process. Many of them were to counter the effects of the Covid 19-pandemic on the economy, officials said.

A number of big-ticket environmentally contentious projects were also cleared-- the 3,097-MW Etalin hydropower project which will involve clearing of rainforests in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley, and the renovation and expansion of the Parliament building in New Delhi, among others.

The Centre launched the auction of 41 mines for commercial mining in June. But several of them were located in biodiversity rich forest areas in central India including a few in one of the largest contiguous stretches of dense forest in central India called Hasdeo Arand spanning 170,000 ha. Following opposition from Chhattisgarh government some of those were saved from going under the hammer.

But there are coal blocks which are not part of the auction which are also being opened up now. The coal ministry in October published a notice that it plans to acquire 1,760 ha of land in Surguja, Chhattisgarh, for mining, of which 98% of the land (1,742.15 ha) is protected forest area, according to the ministry’s own notice published in a newspaper published from Raipur on October 15.

“The single window approval will only ensure ease of filing of applications by project developers. However, each approval, be it for forest diversion, environment impacts or wildlife, has to be scrutinized under different laws that has its own procedures, information disclosures and formalities. This shifts the burden of paperwork from the project developer to the ministry. However, it neither absolves project proponents nor the ministry to ensure that the requirements under each law are adhered to,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher, Centre for Policy Research.

Coal transportation

The ministry has relaxed norms for the coal mining sector and thermal power stations, allowing thermal plants to change their source of coal irrespective of its ash content or mode of transport from the source. This means that coal will be allowed to be transported by trucks covered with tarpaulin sheets, even if the source of the raw material is located a long distance away. The OM to this effect was issued on November 11.

Compensatory plantations

Central projects that are being executed by state agencies will be allowed to take up compensatory afforestation in degraded forest land instead of non-forest land. Increasingly, acquiring large stretches of non-forest land is posing a problem for projects which are required to conduct compensatory afforestation against diversion of forest land. With this relaxation, compensatory afforestation for large central projects like Char dham road in Uttarakhand or 22 green expressways comprising 7,500 km that the ministry of road transport and highways plans to execute may be exempted from taking up plantations in non-forest land.

Public hearings passe

On January 16, offshore and onshore oil and gas exploration were exempted from detailed impact assessments and public hearings. This legal change was questioned by several environmental and legal experts following the oil spill and fire in Baghjan in Assam because Oil India Limited had been exempted from the need to hold public hearings before carrying out fresh oil explorations. Exploration of hydrocarbons has also been made cheaper and easier. Mining companies now have to pay a fee as per the forest land affected by each bore-hole and not according to the total forest area leased out for exploration.

Boost to mining

Mining leases of around 40 mines have expired on March 31 after they completed 50 years of operating. To prevent any disruption in mining, the environment ministry transferred the forest clearance of these mines to the new mine lessees for two years, according to guidelines issued to state governments by the environment ministry on March 31. In a separate policy decision, the environment ministry’s forest advisory committee (FAC) had recommended that the validity of forest clearance be extended for 20 years for some government-owned mines. This extension of environmental approvals to mines that are being granted fresh leases assumes a fait accompli of projects say environmental experts.

EIA 2020

The environment ministry received over 17 lakh objections, comments and suggestions to the draft environment impact assessment notification 2020. The notification has faced widespread opposition because it has a detailed protocol for appraisal of projects that had started operating without approval. This means that projects that have violated norms can be regularised based on fresh appraisal and asked to furnish a bank guarantee. Other controversial clauses include the identification of non-compliance or violation of EC conditions by a project can be done only either suo moto by the project proponent or by any government authority in draft EIA 2020; public consultation period has been reduced from 30 days to 20 days ,etc.

“This year the environment ministry stepped away from its own mandate to actively accommodate the central government’s call to enhance mining, shipping or inland transportation. Several legal requirements were read down, violations condoned and adherence to environmental safeguards either made flexible or long-term extensions granted to ensure compliance. What this meant was an increased burden of pollution when trucks could operate on internal village roads pending completion of conveyor belts or increased number of fishing, farming or common grazing land areas being earmarked for port and highway expansions,” Kanchi added.

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