Relaxation for environmental clearances for highway projects sparks debate

ByJayashree Nandi
Jul 18, 2022 09:51 PM IST

The Union environment ministry on July 14 issued its final notification amending the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2006, which introduces exemption for highway projects, etc.

All highway projects up to 100 km from the Line of Control, the international border with Pakistan, are now exempted from obtaining prior environmental clearances, and the agency executing such projects will only have to ensure self-compliance of the standard operating procedures (SOPs) notified by the Centre from time to time, a government notification has stated.

Representational image. (HT File Photo)
Representational image. (HT File Photo)

This essentially means some high altitude stretches of the Char Dham road project in Uttarakhand, other highway projects in the western and eastern Himalayas and several parts of northeast India will be exempted from environmental appraisals.

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The Union environment ministry on July 14 issued its final notification amending the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2006, which introduces exemption for highway projects in border areas and several others for thermal power plants that run on biomass, fish handling capacity of ports and harbours, airport terminal expansions, among others.

Though environmentalists and legal experts raised several concerns with these relaxations to the EIA norms, particularly diluting environmental appraisal for highway projects in border areas, ministry officials on Monday said they had not received any major objections to these changes.

“We have hardly received any objections to these amendments. People had ample time to read every amendment because the draft notification was issued in April. After scrutinising the comments, we have issued the final notification in this regard,” said a senior environment ministry official. A period of 60 days was given for people to submit their objections and comments to the draft.

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On April 11, the environment ministry issued a draft notification stating that some highway projects near the borders are sensitive in nature, and hence need to be exempted from the requirement of seeking an environment clearance (EC). Instead, the draft prescribed environmental safeguards for self-compliance by project developers.

“The highway projects related to defence and strategic importance in border states are sensitive in nature and in many cases need to be executed on priority keeping in view strategic, defence and security considerations. In this regard, the central government deems it necessary to exempt such projects from the requirement of environmental clearance in the border areas,” the final notification issued on July 14 stated. The project developers will have to self-comply with SOPs laid down.

The high-powered committee (HPC) for the Char Dham Pariyojana, Uttarakhand in their final report submitted in July 2020 unanimously recommended that an environment impact assessment be conducted before road widening in the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone stretch is taken up.

“It should also be noted that road widening activities are allowed only after detailed environment impact assessment and appropriate mitigation measures. Specific projects like the Sukhi Top bypass and those covered by amended clauses…requiring an EIA study should include a Social Impact Assessment, Disaster Management Plan and Environment Management Plan. The HPC has also recommended that the EIA study be done by a competent and reputed organisation, other than the DPR consultant,” the report said.

With the final notification on exempting border roads from prior environmental clearance being issued, environmentalists are concerned that EIA for the Bhagirathi zone may also be skipped now.

“The high-powered committee on Char Dham road has unanimously recommended that an environment impact assessment should be conducted and mitigation measures put in place before road widening takes place in Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone, from Gangotri to Uttarkashi. If the government skips this EIA, then we stand to lose the only pristine stretch of national river Ganga left in the country. The Bhagirathi watershed, just like Alaknanda, Mandakini and Yamuna basins, will be irreparably destroyed by muck and debris from this project. Nobody is or has been against road widening of feeder roads but oblivious to the growing impacts of climate change and the precarious nature of the Himalayas, building an excessively wide 12 metre feeder road, even when the border road is only 7 mts, is irrational and suicidal,” said Mallika Bhanot, member of the Uttarakhand-based Ganga Ahvaan.

In December 2012, the environment ministry notified 4179.59 sq km of area, covering the entire watershed of about 100 km stretch from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi, as the Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone (BESZ) to maintain its environmental flow and protect the ecology of the river. Over 98% of the entire BESZ area is reserved forest and about 58% of the forest area lies in the Gangotri National Park. Almost 59% of the total BESZ area is glacial or snow covered, according to the high-powered committee report.

On December 14 last year, the Supreme Court permitted the Union government to construct all-weather roads with 10 mts width as part of its Char Dham project in Uttarakhand, underlining that “the recent past has thrown up serious challenges to national security”, and that wide strategic feeder roads to Indo-China border areas were required for the infrastructural needs of the armed forces.

Earlier, in its report to the top court in July 2020, the HPC presented a divided opinion, with a majority in favour of wider roads on the Char Dham route, considering the strategic requirement and snow removal needs.

Several ecologists and geologists have, however, raised concerns about the impact of hill cutting, muck disposal and instability that will be caused by a double lane paved shoulder (DLPS) category road.

“The acceptance of these proposals is to bring environment regulations to relinquish its oversight for specific infrastructure projects that have been prioritised by the central government’s infrastructure expansions. Given that there growing instances of climate-induced disasters and these projects will need to transform already vulnerable ecologies, it would be more prudent to have a cautious approach. Instead, the systematic dismantling of environment clearance procedures are neither being backed by scientific knowledge, nor do they factor in the huge costs that may be transferred on to tax payers when there are delays in completing these projects as necessary impact assessment procedures are officially side-stepped,” Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research, said.

Ravi Chopra, chairman of the HPC set up by the Supreme court to oversee the widening of roads under the Char Dham Pariyojana, resigned in January.

In his resignation letter dated January 27, Ravi claimed that the Union ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH) ignored the panel’s recommendations regarding the width of the roads. Chopra also highlighted the importance of protecting the Bhagirathi Eco-sensitive zone several times.

Following his resignation, Chopra said, “A very important aspect of the judgment given by the honorable court is that it is conditional upon MoRTH and the Union ministry of defence, both observing the unanimous decisions of the HPC. The HPC has unanimously recommended that any work that is to be done in the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone should be preceded by an honest environment impact assessment.”

The July 14 notification also exempts thermal power plants up to 25-MW capacity based on biomass or non-hazardous municipal solid waste using supplementary fuel such as coal, lignite/ petroleum products from the requirement of prior environmental clearances.

The expansion of terminal buildings and allied buildings within the existing airport premises, up to 1,50,000 sqm, shall be appraised at the state level by the state environment impact assessment authority provided there is no increase in the existing area of the airport.

The fish handling capacity for ports and harbours has been increased to 30,000 tonne per annum (TPA) from 10,000 TPA by way of the notification. Width at toll plazas and junction improvement at intersection of roads is exempted from being included in the Right of Way, and hence from prior environmental clearances.

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