India speeds up Green approvals as environmentalists call foul
India’s Environment Ministry has almost halved the time it takes to clear projects, cheering companies hit by the pandemic and worrying green activists concerned the increased pace may come at a cost.
It took an average of 84 days to clear a project in 2021, compared with 162 days the year before, according to data shared by the ministry. That’s a result of cutting down needless processes and setting timelines for assessment panels, according to Rameshwar Prasad Gupta, the top bureaucrat in the ministry who took charge last year.
The increased pace comes several years after the ministry was accused of deliberately stonewalling projects, causing delays that slowed down the economy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to change that and in his seven years in office the Environment Ministry has brought in a series of policy changes in the country’s environment regulations that have been welcomed by industry.
“Lots of changes have been made, which save a good amount of time,” said A.K. Singh, joint president for sustainable development at cement maker Birla Corp. “If a project gets held up, it really hits the economy directly.”
However, environmentalists say the pendulum may have swung too far. They say that the ministry is rushing through assessments and going soft on polluting coal-fired power plants as Modi’s government proposes to ease laws that were formed as a result of the world’s deadliest industrial disaster more than three decades ago.
One area of concern is the field of expertise of those involved in assessment committees, according to Ritwick Dutta, a New Delhi-based environment lawyer. Assessments can be weakened if people from unrelated areas are involved as they might not be able to ask appropriate questions, such as professors of electronics and automotive engineering in a panel on river valleys and hydropower projects, he said.
“Chasing speed over quality of assessments can pose grave risks,” Dutta said. “It’s an environment risk as well as a business risk.”