Covid-19: Environment ministry panel for automatic extension of forest clearance
The environment ministry’s forest advisory committee (FAC) has recommended that the validity of forest clearance be extended automatically for government-owned mines whose lease period got a 20-year extension (some of these are from the last year). FAC made this recommendation in view of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak and economic impacts of the lockdown imposed to stop contain the infection.
According to the minutes of FAC’s meeting held on March 30 through video-conferencing, these mines will not require a fresh forest clearance. Hence, the impact of forest diversion on the area will not be assessed. Every time its lease expires, a mine has to apply for a fresh forest clearance.
The minutes, which HT has seen, state that ministry of steel sought a clarification from the environment ministry in September 2019 on whether forest clearance can be made co-terminous (valid for same period) with the mining lease period.
The 50-year lease of five National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) mines in Chhattisgarh expired in 2015 (for four mines) and 2017 (for one mine). Last year, the Chhattisgarh government extended the lease period by another 20 years till 2035 and 2037.
Odisha has also extended the lease period for some of its mines. The request for extension of forest clearance was made for these projects by the steel ministry.
FAC observed that based on interpretation of various court orders and legal opinion from time to time, such extension of forest clearance can be granted. FAC, however, said the extension of forest clearance should be continued based on whether mines have complied with previous conditions stipulated in the forest clearance like compensatory afforestation and mitigation of environmental impacts. The status of compliance with previous conditions will be monitored after three months (beginning March 30) and additional mitigation measures recommended if needed.
“Environment ministry in view of the recent emergency situation (lockdown due to outbreak of Covid-19 disease), may consider the approval granted under FCA-1980, to Government mines, making those co-terminus with the valid lease period,” FAC observed.
“FAC’s emphasis on the compliance with previous conditions of forest diversion is significant. However, this should not become a mere bureaucratic exercise both by the central and state governments. For now, the state government can reach out to affected people living in and around these mines to ascertain the existing impacts before taking a final decision. In the context of the lockdown, people living around the mines are the only ones who can report ground realities, other than the mining companies,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, a public policy think tank.
Separately, the environment ministry has already issued directions for extending the validity of all prior environmental clearances expiring between March 15 and April 30 till June 30. The ministry of home affairs has categorised “mining operations” as essential services, which will not be interrupted during the three-week lockdown period that began on March 25.