Govt exempts big realty from obtaining environmental clearance
Going against its own orders, issued six months ago, the environment ministry has decided to exempt big buildings and real estate projects from taking environment clearance, a mandatory requirement under the law for the past more than a decade.
The U-turn will take the construction industry out of the environment ministry’s purview and no project could be challenged on environmental grounds before the National Green Tribunal, says experts.
Under the current law, the building and township projects of more than 20,000 square meters size are required to carry out an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) study to gauge possible impacts of the project on the surrounding environment before starting its construction. If the project is considered safe, the State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities (SEIAA) appointed by the environment ministry, give permission (environment clearance) to the project.
The ministry has now issued a draft notification on April 29 which says the states which will integrate environmental conditions in the building approvals under their Building Bylaws will not have to get environment clearance for construction projects. It replaces the area-specific EIA and environment clearance process carried out by SEIAA prior to starting of the project with standard conditions such as ‘sewage discharge’, ‘water harvesting’ and ‘DG Sets specification’ imposed and monitored by the local urban authorities post construction of the project.
“This will mean, no construction project can be ever stopped or rejected on environmental grounds. Since there will be no environment clearance under the Environment Protection Act, the projects could also not be challenged before the National Green Tribunal which doesn’t have its jurisdiction over the state building bylaws,” said environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta.
The National Green Tribunal has, in the past, penalized developers for constructing environmentally damaging projects. In May, it quashed the environment clearance of a project that encroached and damaged 3 acres of lake in Bangalore and slapped Rs 117 crore fine on the developer. In July last year, the tribunal slapped a fine on Akshardham Temple for carrying out expansion near Yamuna Flood Plains without an environment clearance. The Supreme Court also said in an order in January this year that housing projects coming up without environment clearance were illegal.
The latest position of the environment ministry is a break away from the past. The environment ministry, itself, reiterated in its order on November 10, 2015 that the states should follow the procedure for environment clearance for building projects “in letter and spirit.” To cut the delays, the order insisted that SEIAA will assess the project only on the “thrust environmental areas” while the rest of permissions should be dealt with by the local authorities. The order came after a series of reviews of the need of environment clearance for building projects in the environment ministry including by a High-Level Committee (see box: ‘flip flop flip’).
The latest notification and the change in the ministry’s stance has come after hectic discussions between the environment ministry, the urban development ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the representatives of the construction industry, said an official in the environment ministry. The documents, accessed by HT, indicate the environment ministry sent a proposal to the ministry of urban development in February “regarding incorporation of environmental guidelines in the building bylaws” and the matter was treated by the two ministries as “urgent and important.”
The environment ministry’s notification stresses upon government’s efforts for “ensuring Ease of Doing Responsible Bussiness, and streamlining the permissions for buildings and construction sector”, which, it says, is important for providing “affordable housing to weaker section in urban area.” However, rather than making exemptions for affordable houses which are often smaller than 20,000 sq meters, it exempts all big construction projects such as shopping malls, multiplexes and office complexes.
When asked for the reason of change in the ministry’s stand, Manoj Kumar Singh, Joint Secretary in the Environment Ministry, said in an email reply “The draft notification dated 29.04.2016 proposes to integrate the standard and objectively monitorable environmental conditions with the building permissions starting from built up area of 5000 sq. mtrs. and above. The number of buildings in this category and cumulative built up area of such buildings is much larger than buildings of 20000 sq. mtrs. and more. So here idea is to make more buildings follow the environmental norms.” He insisted the proposed notification will not take out these buildings (20000 sq. mtrs to 150000 sq. mtrs.) from the purview of EIA Notification, 2006 and E (P) Act. “It proposes to integrate these standard environmental conditions with the building permissions,” he added.