The CAG recently pulled up Union environment ministry for allowing ‘procedural deficiencies’ in granting clearances.
New Delhi: In what vindicates many activists who have constantly been pointing out large-scale violations of environmental norms in privately-funded development projects, the comptroller and auditor general (CAG), in its latest report, has confirmed that the Union environment ministry ignored multi-layered procedures while granting clearances between 2011 to 2015.
Indicting the environment ministry for “procedural deficiencies”, CAG has hinted at the possibility of the government going easy on more than 200 projects, which failed to meet the conditions of the ministry’s own rules.
The report examined 216 projects. It also looked into 352 other projects which were granted clearance between 2008 to 2012, to check whether the ministry has been monitoring violations of norms after they started functioning.
The report points out that the ministry violated environmental norms on at least three counts.
First, it tracks down procedural violations in granting clearances. The report says that only in 14% of the projects, the terms of reference (TOR) – mandatory for any project once it passes stage 1 of the clearance – were given within the prescribed limit of 60 days. The report found such delays up to 365 days.
It further says, “In 25% cases, the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) reports did not comply with TOR and in 23% cases they did not comply with the generic structure of the report.
Despite this lackadaisical attitude of the ministry, the projects were found to have got the necessary environmental clearances.
Second, the report found structural failures in measuring the environmental impact of a particular project. Since cumulative impact studies before preparing an EIA report was not made mandatory, the report says that “the impact of projects in a region on the ecosystem was not known”.
The report found that EIA reports did not comply with the TOR in 75% cases.
Similarly, it says that the ministry has not yet appointed a regulator “as observed by the Supreme Court (July 2011) to carry out an independent, objective and transparent appraisal and approval of the projects for environmental clearances and to monitor the implementation of the conditions laid down in the environmental clearance.”
Further, it pointed our many instances where public hearings to approve a project were either not held or were conducted without a quorum. In addition, the ministry was seen to approve EIA reports in which “reservations expressed during public hearings were not included”, indicating a high-handedness in approving projects.
Third, there are incongruities in maintaining data, the report says. Figures given by the National Informatics Centre Cell and that of the ministry differed significantly, according to the report. “There were discrepancies such as inclusion of Category B projects along with Category A projects, sectoral misclassification, wrong depiction of location of projects. The database did not contain the time taken at each stage of EIA process,” the CAG report says.
It further says that the TORs were different for similar kinds of projects, pointing towards a sort of favouritism practiced by the ministry which did not give any justification for such “non-uniformity”. The report also finds violation of one of the most basic environmental norms. “The Environment Impact Assessment reports were found prepared by non-accredited consultants,” it says.
The report also goes on to say that in many of these cases, the ministry levied no penalties on companies which violated environmental norms or delayed in submitting EIA reports.
Concluding, the report said that because of the Union ministry’s poor coordination with state/central pollution control boards and other relevant committees, it has no information or data on various projects. It said that a majority of projects had no time-bound action plan to comply with environmental norms even as they got clearances from the ministry.
While the CAG report indicates the casual attitude of the Union governments towards environmental impact, it also comes on the heels of the alleged corruption scandal that had emerged after parts of the Sahara-Birla papers became public. Records seized during raids at Birla offices in 2013 had allegedly revealed that several such projects got undue clearances under the tenure of then environment minister Jayanti Natarajan – a charge she has strongly denied.
The Wire had earlier reported that Birla papers had shown that “a payment of Rs. 7.08 crore was made during the period from 09.01.2012 to 02.02.2012 under the heading ‘Project-J-Environment & Forest’ ”.
In a recent application filed before the Supreme Court by NGO Common Cause (which has now been dismissed by the top court), the petitioner had said, “it is to be noted [that] during Ms Jayanti Natarajan’s tenure as Minister, Environment & Forest, as many as 13 projects of Aditya Birla Group companies were cleared between 08/11/2011 and 17.06.2013.”
The CAG report could be another lead the government can use to investigate the matter. However, this may hurt hurt current dispensation’s interests too, as the report also takes into account similar clearances under the Narendra Modi government, which has had two environment ministers – Prakash Javdekar and now Anil Madhav Dave.
Recently, Dave had instructed ministry officials to not let “different studies” delay environmental clearances. He made it clear that delays in granting environmental clearances will hold back development.
A report in the Indian Express said, “In its first two years, the Narendra Modi government cleared over 2,000 projects involving investment worth Rs 10 lakh crore. In May 2016, Dave’s predecessor Prakash Javadekar had said that the average waiting period for project approval had been brought down to 190 days from 600 days during the UPA regime and the aim now was to reduce it further to 100 days.”
The negligence with which successive governments have given environmental clearances points to a larger casualness on environmental issues – often considered to be a roadblock in development. Thousands of people have been affected over the last few decades because of such high-handedness by different governments. Whether the CAG report, which serves as a timely reminder to such violations of both human rights and the ecosystem, will ring a bell in the high echelons of the Modi government remains to be seen.