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Climate and Us | Perils of incentivising shortcuts in environmental appraisals

While granting clearances efficiently is important, the language of the Union environment ministry's office memorandum is concerning. 
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The OM was called out by several independent environmental experts to be irresponsible and would make an environmental appraisal of infrastructure projects even laxer. (Amal KS/HT Photo)
Published on Jan 24, 2022 08:24 PM IST
ByJayashree Nandi

The Centre plans to incentivise states through a star rating system based on how quickly they accord environmental clearances to various infrastructure and development projects.

The Union environment ministry issued an office memorandum (OM) to this effect on January 17 stating that the environment ministry has taken several initiatives for streamlining the environmental clearance process and reducing the time taken to grant clearances.

The average time taken to grant environmental clearances has reduced considerably, to 75 days against the time stipulated in the Environment Impact Assessment notification 2006, the OM said.

On New Year’s Eve last year, the ministry in a statement boasted that the average time to grant environmental clearances in all sectors has reduced significantly, from over 150 days in 2019 to less than 90 days in 2021, and that the environmental clearance time was as low as 60 days for some sectors.

In its January 17 OM, the ministry said the Cabinet secretary raised the issue of ease of doing business and recommended a ranking of states based on efficiency in granting environmental clearances in a meeting on November 13, 2021.

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The OM was called out by several independent environmental experts to be irresponsible and would make an environmental appraisal of infrastructure projects even laxer.

What is extremely concerning is the language of the OM. Granting environmental clearances efficiently without wasting time is important. But nowhere does the OM mention that environmental appraisal should be diligently done so that the projects have the smallest ecological footprint possible.

Instead, more points are meant for states where in case of less than 10% of the total cases placed with the state authority, essential details are sought more than once. More points in the star rating are also meant for states wherein less than 10% of cases, site visits were carried out by the state authorities or SEIAA. The rating system doesn’t only push states to grant clearances as soon as possible to infrastructure and real estate projects but encourages shoddy assessment.

The OM is an example of the environmental appraisal regime that is soon going to be implemented.

HT reported on September 11, 2021, that the ministry is in the process of setting up a “single window” process for all clearances pertaining to forest, environment, wildlife and coastal regulation zone.

In an OM on September 7, the ministry directed all industries, mining companies, and infrastructure projects to upload digitised records of clearances granted to them in the past and records of compliance with the directions issued to them under the environmental clearance. This is mainly for the implementation of the single window clearance system where a single centralised system will be available for environmental, forest and coastal regulation zone clearances. All communications and data will be digitised and uploaded on the Parivesh website. But does that ensure better monitoring and appraisal? Not unless resources are invested in tracking compliance of environmental conditions by each project and every proposal is critically appraised.

HT also reported in April 2021 that the environment ministry has allowed companies operating in several industries, including some polluting ones, to expand capacities on the basis of a self-certification that this will not “increase the pollution load”, creating room for potential misdeclaration (and misuse).

Considering that severe climate crisis impacts are being recorded in different parts of the country and the pressure on forests and ecologically sensitive areas is at an all-time high, compromising on the environmental appraisal process could lead to disastrous consequences for people.

From a technical issue discussed and debated by a handful of legal experts and scientists, environmental, coastal and forests clearances should be a people’s issue now.

From the climate crisis to air pollution, from questions of the development-environment tradeoffs to India’s voice in international negotiations on the environment, HT’s Jayashree Nandi brings her deep domain knowledge in a weekly column

The views expressed are personal

The Centre plans to incentivise states through a star rating system based on how quickly they accord environmental clearances to various infrastructure and development projects.

The Union environment ministry issued an office memorandum (OM) to this effect on January 17 stating that the environment ministry has taken several initiatives for streamlining the environmental clearance process and reducing the time taken to grant clearances.

The average time taken to grant environmental clearances has reduced considerably, to 75 days against the time stipulated in the Environment Impact Assessment notification 2006, the OM said.

On New Year’s Eve last year, the ministry in a statement boasted that the average time to grant environmental clearances in all sectors has reduced significantly, from over 150 days in 2019 to less than 90 days in 2021, and that the environmental clearance time was as low as 60 days for some sectors.

In its January 17 OM, the ministry said the Cabinet secretary raised the issue of ease of doing business and recommended a ranking of states based on efficiency in granting environmental clearances in a meeting on November 13, 2021.

The OM was called out by several independent environmental experts to be irresponsible and would make an environmental appraisal of infrastructure projects even laxer.

What is extremely concerning is the language of the OM. Granting environmental clearances efficiently without wasting time is important. But nowhere does the OM mention that environmental appraisal should be diligently done so that the projects have the smallest ecological footprint possible.

Instead, more points are meant for states where in case of less than 10% of the total cases placed with the state authority, essential details are sought more than once. More points in the star rating are also meant for states wherein less than 10% of cases, site visits were carried out by the state authorities or SEIAA. The rating system doesn’t only push states to grant clearances as soon as possible to infrastructure and real estate projects but encourages shoddy assessment.

RELATED STORIES

The OM is an example of the environmental appraisal regime that is soon going to be implemented.

HT reported on September 11, 2021, that the ministry is in the process of setting up a “single window” process for all clearances pertaining to forest, environment, wildlife and coastal regulation zone.

In an OM on September 7, the ministry directed all industries, mining companies, and infrastructure projects to upload digitised records of clearances granted to them in the past and records of compliance with the directions issued to them under the environmental clearance. This is mainly for the implementation of the single window clearance system where a single centralised system will be available for environmental, forest and coastal regulation zone clearances. All communications and data will be digitised and uploaded on the Parivesh website. But does that ensure better monitoring and appraisal? Not unless resources are invested in tracking compliance of environmental conditions by each project and every proposal is critically appraised.

HT also reported in April 2021 that the environment ministry has allowed companies operating in several industries, including some polluting ones, to expand capacities on the basis of a self-certification that this will not “increase the pollution load”, creating room for potential misdeclaration (and misuse).

Considering that severe climate crisis impacts are being recorded in different parts of the country and the pressure on forests and ecologically sensitive areas is at an all-time high, compromising on the environmental appraisal process could lead to disastrous consequences for people.

From a technical issue discussed and debated by a handful of legal experts and scientists, environmental, coastal and forests clearances should be a people’s issue now.

From the climate crisis to air pollution, from questions of the development-environment tradeoffs to India’s voice in international negotiations on the environment, HT’s Jayashree Nandi brings her deep domain knowledge in a weekly column

The views expressed are personal

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