Ministerial group proposes quicker green nods for PM Gati Shakti projects
The move has prompted experts to caution that fast-tracking approvals could compromise the quality of appraisals and assessments in ecologically vulnerable regions
Environmental clearances for new infrastructure such as railways, road and power lines with project costs in excess ₹500 crore could be hastened under the Pradhan Mantri Gati Shakti programme, a ministerial group has proposed, according to people familiar with the matter.
The proposed move has prompted experts to caution that fast-tracking such approvals could compromise the quality of appraisals and assessments in ecologically vulnerable regions of the country.
Transport minister Nitin Gadkari chaired the 10th meeting of the group of infrastructure committee on January 24 to address issues regarding implementation of infrastructure projects. Gadkari said an action plan has been introduced to accelerate progress of Gati Shakti projects, according to a statement by the roads and highways ministry.
The meeting discussed pending forest and environment clearances, facilitation of working permissions and approvals, ensuring land allocation and transfer, and the release of funds, the statement added.
The meeting was attended by commerce minster Piyush Goyal, railways and IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, environment minister Bhupender Yadav, and officials of these ministries. It focused on policy matters related to roads, railways and power, and environment, forest and wildlife clearances for projects related to them.
“Parivesh 2.0 and its linking with Gati Shakti through API (application programming interface) will give access to project proponents to their proposals, especially where do they fall and what kind of the permissions will be needed,” an environment ministry official said, seeking anonymity.
Parivesh is a web-based government workflow app for online submission and monitoring of proposals submitted by user agencies to seek forest, environment and wildlife clearances. PM Gati Shakti is India’s flagship programme to transform infrastructure in the country.
The central government will use the geographic information system (GIS) to grant faster environmental clearances for infrastructure projects through the recently launched Parivesh portal, the environment ministry has informed the Rajya Sabha, HT reported on December 12, 2022. The use of technology aims to reduce the time taken to approve proposals by as much as 30%.
In its reply to HT’s queries, the environment ministry has now confirmed that the Parivesh portal will be linked with the Gati Shakti programme.
“Parivesh is a single-window integrated environmental management system for online submission and monitoring of the proposals submitted by the proponents for seeking Environment, Forest, Wildlife and Coastal Regulation Zone clearances from the central government,” junior environment minister Ashwini Kumar Choubey said in Parliament on December 8, 2022. “It is a GIS based system and analytics platform that provides information to various stakeholders using Decision Support System functionality.”
Certain other new policies may also expedite forest clearances. For example, the Forest Conservation Rules 2022, which were notified on June 28 last year, seek to replace forest conservation rules of 2003 and make the process of granting forest clearance more efficient.
The new rules say that the onus of recognising forest rights was with the state governments. They do away with the role of the environment ministry in recognition of forest rights before forest clearance is granted to any infrastructure or other project coming up on forest land, thereby reducing time taken in completing formalities.
Project developers can now purchase land with plantations from private individuals to present them as compensatory afforestation against forest diversion for non-forest activities, according to the 2022 rules, to reduce time taken to acquire non-forest land by project proponents. The environment ministry released guidelines for the Accredited Afforestation Scheme on September 15, 2022.
Around 12 proposals prioritised under the Gati Shakti scheme are under examination in the environment ministry.
“Projects related to public utilities like rail, road, power lines, etc., which have estimated cost of ₹500 crore, are being taken on priority and regularly monitored on the Gati Shakti portal,” the ministry official said. “The environment ministry has also brought in a system of fortnightly review and coordination meetings.”
Experts are worried that hurried appraisals could lead to greater environmental risks and the infra projects run the risk of longer litigation and resistance by local people.
“The greatest problem is that often the first step of assessment is by doing a site visit, which takes time. Documentary verification often doesn’t address that,” said Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer. “Often, environment and forest expert panels are considering 20-30 proposals, with very little time for assessments. Doing the assessment very quickly can put the projects to greater risk because of litigation. There may be longer litigation and delay in project execution, which is bad for business.”
The government has already kept all major highways, roads and bridge projects outside the purview of environment impact assessment, Dutta pointed out. “Almost all bigger projects like roads and railways are already out of the environmental clearance process,” he said. “If they want to speed up infrastructure projects, they need to look at other non-environmental and forest issues such as how to get the money to build them. How do you maintain them? How do you deal with environmental bottlenecks created by nature itself?”
“India’s procedures for environmental approvals are designed to rely on data transparency, detailed assessments and public participation as their essential pillars for informed decision making. These three become even more important when large infrastructure projects are expanding into socially and ecologically vulnerable geographies,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank. “When economic planning is starting to recognise the importance of climate-induced risks and ecological resilience, it is desirable that environmental regulatory procedures speak to these as well. This is even more critical when the social costs of decisions are visible in real time.”