Centre to rank states on rapid green nods

Updated on Jan 20, 2022 03:32 AM IST

Such a ranking system, the memo said, was first tabled during a meeting chaired by the Cabinet Secretary on November 13 to discuss actions taken by the ministry to facilitate “ease of doing business”.

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ByPrayag Arora-Desai, Mumbai

The Union environment ministry plans to rank states, specifically state environment impact assessment authorities (SEIAAs), on the speed with which they accord environmental clearances (EC) to development projects, a move that has drawn criticism from experts and activists who say this could result in more projects being cleared without proper due diligence.

The criteria for the ranking was detailed in an office memorandum sent by the ministry to all SEIAAs on January 17, and HT has reviewed a copy of it. “It has been decided to incentivise the states through a star-rating system, based on efficiency and timeliness in grant of EC. This is intended as a mode of recognition and encouragement as well as for prompting improvements where needed,” it added.

Such a ranking system, the memo said, was first tabled during a meeting chaired by the Cabinet Secretary on November 13 to discuss actions taken by the ministry to facilitate “ease of doing business”.

As per the proposed ranking system, SEIAAs will be graded between 0 and 1 on five parameters, and 0 and 2 on one. These are: 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 (SEACs); 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.

While the parameters are fine, it is the way the scoring is to be done that is worrying.

For example, if the SEIAA conducts site visits for more than 20% of the total cases placed before it for approval, it will receive 0 marks. However, if it conducts site visits for less than 10% percent of total cases considered, it will be awarded one mark. Similarly, if the SEIAA seeks essential details from project proponents more than once in above 30% of cases, it will receive 0 marks, but it will be awarded one mark if essential details are sought in less than 10% t of the cases. “This sets a dangerous precedent because it will clearly discourage authorities from carrying out site visits to gauge whether environment impact assessments have been properly carried out,” said Stalin D, environmentalist and director of Mumbai-based NGO Vanashakti.

Sujit Kumar Bajpayee, joint secretary, MoEFCC directed queries to the environment ministry’s media cell, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The one parameter on which the SEIAA will be awarded up to 2 points is the average number of days taken by it to accord EC for projects. Should a particular SEIAA take less than an average of 80 days to grant EC to all projects considered, it will be awarded two marks. If the time frame exceeds more than 120 days, it gets 0. States which collect between 7-8 marks as part of this system will be given a five star rating, while states that collect less than 3 marks will be given a zero star rating. These ratings will be updated twice annually, on the basis of the SEIAA’s functioning during a six-month period.

Environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta remarked that the plan runs counter to the environment ministry’s statutory duties. “Ease of doing business cannot be the yardstick by which the environment ministry, or environment departments at the state level, are judged. Their job is to protect the environment, not make things easier for industries. Such a ratings system has no place in the application of the precautionary principle, which takes time. The ministry is undermining its own safeguards and weakening the authority of the SEIAAs by imposing time limits on their functioning. This rating system is the equivalent of judging teachers for how well their students are able to cheat in an examination, or judging policemen on how efficiently they allow criminal activity to continue because it is good for business.”

If an environment clearance is not accorded to a project within 80 days, Dutta explained, it is likely to be because the proposal lacks adequate data. “For instance, there might be serious gaps in a particular proposal’s EIA report. An SEIAA should be rightfully concerned about these, and it is within its power to seek clarity from the proponent. This is of course good for the environment, but bad for business, and so now regulatory agencies will be judged for subverting their own responsibilities.”

Dutta added that this rating system is in violation of both the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 as well as the Constitutional responsibility of the Central Government to protect the environment.

“A perusal of the Criteria reveals that greater weightage is given for projects where due diligence is less. Thus, if the SEIAA members conduct ‘site visits’ to ascertain the local conditions and ecology, marks are attributed for the same – and ironically the more the members visit the field to see the ecology less marks they get... The aim is clear, SEIAA members should sit in the confines of conference rooms and take decisions and earn high marks. This process will ensure that SEIAA’s aim will be to clear projects at the shortest possible time. It is pertinent to point out that the task of SEIAA under the EIA Notification is to undertake a ‘detailed scrutiny’ of the EIA Report and all other relevant information including minutes of the public hearing. Such ‘detailed scrutiny’ takes time. Besides, the SEIAA also has the right to reject projects – something that the OM has been silent on.”

Experts also said that such a rating system stands to reduce the SEIAA to a ‘rubber stamps authority’ where there performance will be judged by the speed with which they facilitate environmental degradation and jeopardising of community livelihoods.

“This Office Memorandum in contrary to the environmental rule of law; violates article 21 and is an arbitrary exercise of power to benefit only business at the cost of environment and people. At a time when India has the world’s worst air and water quality, this office memorandum will, if applied, reduce environmental law compliance to a mere formality. It needs immediate withdrawal,” Dutta said.

This view was echoed by other experts. Kanchi Kohli, a researcher with the think tank Centre for Policy Research, claimed that such a move will severely constrain the mandate of the SEIAAs under the Environment Protection Act and the Environment Impact Assessment notification. “These authorities are meant to uphold environmental protection. If the Centre wants to assess the performance of SEIAAs, the criteria for the same should step from this mandate, which is drawn from Section 3(3) of the Environment Protection Act. This ratings system could lead to a further dilution in the quality of environment impact assessments and it only demonises the regulatory process, whereas it is the state of the economy at large which has arrested the growth of business. It’s not like such a move will suddenly allow projects to start taking off.”

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