‘Sensitive’ highway projects near border to be exempt from environment clearance

Updated on Apr 14, 2022 11:26 AM IST

On April 11, the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) 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).

Union environment ministry plans to exempt highway projects near the country’s borders that are critical to the country’s defence or are of strategic importance from obtaining prior environmental clearance. PREMIUM
Union environment ministry plans to exempt highway projects near the country’s borders that are critical to the country’s defence or are of strategic importance from obtaining prior environmental clearance.
ByJayashree Nandi, New Delhi

The Union environment ministry plans to exempt highway projects near the country’s borders that are critical to the country’s defence or are of strategic importance from the requirement of prior environment clearance – a move that environmentalists fear could lead to environmental degradation in ecologically fragile and biodiversity-rich areas.

On April 11, the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) 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.

“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 ministry deems it necessary to exempt such projects from the requirement of EC in the border areas subject to prescribing Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) along with standard environmental safeguards for such projects for self-compliance by the agency executing such projects,” said the draft notification amending the Environment Impact Assessment regulations. HT has reviewed a copy.

The notification also seeks to exempt 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 EC. “In view of the activity of using the aforesaid fuel mix being eco-friendly, and in order to encourage such activities, the ministry deems it necessary to increase the threshold capacity for such thermal power plants for which EC is not required,” the draft added.

The notification plans to increase the exemption threshold for fish handling capacity of ports/harbours which exclusively handle fish, exempt the width at highway toll plazas and junction improvement at intersections from being included in Right of Way, and does away with the need for EC for expansion of airport terminal buildings.

Environmental activists are concerned that a policy of exempting defence projects from green clearances could lead to environmental degradation in ecologically fragile and biodiversity-rich border areas mainly in the eastern and western Himalayas. They say it means defence projects along dense forests in Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir will not be scrutinised.

“India’s environment clearance was always amenable to periodic amendments, many of which have been to lower the legal standards for particular projects or sectors. The ministry’s defence for new draft amendments is that they impacts are incremental and therefore can be addressed through management measures,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research.

“Increasingly, the environment clearance procedure is failing to strengthen procedures based on project histories, site specificity and our understanding of climate change. The exemptions, in particular for airport expansions or defence projects are putting investments, livelihoods and lives at risk. The proposed amendments instead operate on a reverse logic,” she added.

Activists cite the example of the 880-km-long Chardham all-weather highway for the pilgrimage to four religious’ sites in Uttarakhand. On December 14 last year, the Supreme Court permitted the Union government to construct all-weather roads with 10m 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.

In its report to the top court earlier, a high-powered committee on the matter had 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 -- and a minority pointing to the environmental risks.

Several ecologists and geologists have also 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 road construction work in the upper reaches in the Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive (BSZ) zone is yet to be carried out. As per the BSZ guidelines, environment impact assessment is mandatory for big projects in the region. Its farcical to say that the char dham project doesn’t require EC. The project was very carefully divided in to small parts to bypass the need for environmental clearance,” said Mallika Bhanot, member of Uttarakhand based Ganga Ahvaan.

Objections or suggestions on the proposal contained in the draft notification issued on Monday can do so in the next 60 days.

Government officials insisted that all exemptions have taken into account security requirements, and their systems continue to have checks in place.

“These exemptions have been made keeping in view security requirements and also people’s. There are checks inbuilt in the process. We are vigilant to the fact that environment management plan (EMP) are followed religiously and monitored well,” said a senior environment ministry official who declined to be quoted.

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