Environment ministry on project clearance spree, activists wary
The nationwide lockdown which began on March 25 has coincided with the union environment ministry taking significant policy decisions on several large infrastructure projects across the country,, many of which have been opposed by scientists and activists for their ecological footprint.
The environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee (EAC) held nine meetings only in April through video-conferencing where several industrial, mining and infrastructure projects were considered and cleared.
Significant among them is the renovation and expansion of the existing Parliament building (part of the Central Vista) in the capital at at cost of ₹922 crore. EAC’s decision on the project will be made public next week.
The ministry’s Forest Advisory Council (FAC) met twice during the period and deliberated on extremely contentious projects -- the Etalin hydropower project ( 3097 MW )( which will involve clearing of rainforests in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley ) and the clearing of the Nallamala forests in Telangana for uranium exploration. According to the minutes of the FAC meeting held on March 30, three independent expert members only confirmed decisions via email and that only the inspector general and director general of forests were present.
The National Board for Wildlife met once on April 7 but considered as many as 34 infrastructure, mining and commercial projects linked or inside wildlife sanctuaries and reserves.
“All ministries have been active but the environment ministry has been particularly active in expediting clearances for bulk drugs. Seven environmental clearances have been granted, six ECs have been recommended and 10 more drug proposals have been scheduled for EAC meeting on May 11 to 13,” said Manju Pandey, joint secretary (media) based on inputs from ministry officials. Her reference is to the Covid-19-related clearances that the ministry rushed through.
Among other decisions, she added that a draft Environment Impact Assessment notification 2020 has been finalised and published for comments from public.
She did not comment on the other projects.
The environment ministry being in fast-track mode worries experts. Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research, said: “First, it has continued to receive and appraise projects in all sectors and not just those, which fall in essential services. If a project is approved, it will be without any on-site scrutiny. The ministry has also not withdrawn the draft amendment to the EIA notification, despite request early on in the lockdown and stronger demands that followed thereafter.” She added that there is also no clarity on “ how the public facing functions of regulation will operate (now) -- for instance public hearings, monitoring the compliance of safeguards like effluent discharge, pollution, encroachment or illegal operation.”
Clearance to mines
In its March 30 meeting, FAC recommended that the validity of forest clearance be extended automatically for government-owned mines whose leases were renewed for 20 years recently. In a separate decision, FAC also issued guidelines that forest clearance of mines whose leases expired on March 31 can be transferred immediately to new lessees to prevent any disruption in mining output.
Mining leases of around 40 mines expired on March 31 after they completed 50 years of operations. Experts questioned how previous environmental violations by these mines will be accounted for.
Projects in biodiversity rich areas
FAC considered two large and contentious projects in its April 23 meeting, the minutes of which are yet to be made public.
One of them is forest clearance given to the Etalin hydropower project in one of India’s most biodiverse zones in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley. The project will involve diversion of 1,150.08 ha of forest land and felling of at least 270,000 trees in subtropical evergreen broad-leaved forest and subtropical rain forests. Scientists working in Dibang Valley have written at least four letters, seen by HT, on how the project will spell doom for the region’s biodiversity and the Idu Mishmi people.
FAC has also considered aN application for survey and exploration of uranium over 83 sqkm of forests in Telangana’s Amrabad Tiger Reserve. Following widespread protests by environmentalists and local people, the Telangana legislative council took a decision to not allow the project. But AN FAC status report shows it was slotted for consideration because the proposal by the Atomic Minerals Directorate for exploration and Research was pending.
The National Board for Wildlife held a meeting on April 7 where approval was recommended to coal mining inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam; maintenance works for a road inside Namdapha Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh; drilling of boreholes for Sharavathi pumped storage and underground 2000 MW hydropower station inside Sharavathi Lion Tailed Macaque sanctuary in Karnataka; and construction and commissioning of Lakhwar Multipurpose Project (300 MW) in Dehradun and Tehri Garhwal districts by Uttarakhand Jal Vidhyut Nigam Limited .