With the aim of bringing “uniformity” in terms and conditions for environment clearances, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has released standard environment clearance conditions for 25 industrial sectors including major ones like coal mines, oil and gas exploration and hydropower projects.
The environment ministry is often in the line of fire for being soft on the industry while appraising their projects for environment clearances (EC) and this decision is likely to generate more such controversy. The office order, which came out last week, is seen as yet another decision taken by the environment ministry to ease the process of green clearances for industries.
However, it is also in line with the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s overall policy of simplifying rules and speeding up processes for the growth of industries and thus the economy. Ease of business was a promise made by Modi just before the 2014 general elections and after forming the government, there have been evident steps to ease and simplify rules for green clearances.
For instance, in June-July 2014, the NDA government launched an online system for seeking and tracking the status of the environment and forest clearances. Subsequently, in April 2015, the NDA government brought standard Terms of Reference (ToRs) for conducting environmental impact studies for projects related to 39 industrial and infrastructure sectors. ToRs are guidelines for conducting environmental studies of projects after which the project goes for clearance stage.
As a result, by the end of 2017, in just over three years of the NDA government’s tenure, the average processing time for green clearances came down from 580 days to 180 days. The government has a target of bringing the average time for green clearances under 100 days.
The latest move is expected to further bring down the time taken by the MoEFCC for granting environment clearance to a project. But while this speed and efficiency in clearance could ease things further for the industry, will it be an effective process to ensure environment protection?
Environmentalists are wary about the environment ministry’s constantly changing process meant to assess the environmental impact of projects.
“There is no credible environmental impact assessment … there is no credible appraisal (of the project). The non-existent appraisal process is so poor. They are just going down the hill,” said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a network of organisations and individuals working on issues related to the water sector, specifically associated to large dams.
What are the changes?
In India, the projects seeking environment clearance are appraised by the MoEFCC under the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2006. The process includes screening, scoping, public consultation and appraisal by expert appraisal committees (EAC) of the environment ministry which then either rejects clearance to a project or recommends clearance along with certain stipulated conditions.
But the industry has been persistent in its complaint that an absence of standard terms and conditions ends up making the process time consuming, arbitrary and prone to corruption. In response, the NDA government had standardised ToRs in 2015. Since then a similar demand was made for standardising conditions for ECs as well. Those demands too have now finally borne fruit with the latest office order from the government.
Explaining the changes, a senior official of the MoEFCC said the standard conditions for environment clearance (EC) will bring “uniformity” in “terms and conditions” imposed on the project for getting ECs.
“They will also act as general guidance to different EACs as well as companies seeking clearances. It is a major step and will make the system transparent, reduce the delays and remove arbitrariness. These standard conditions for ECs were under serious deliberation for nearly one year now since but on account of one reason or other they were not being finalised. But they have been finalised and developed after extensive consultations from industry and civil society experts,” said the environment ministry official.
Some of the major sectors from the list of the 25 industrial sectors for which the standard conditions have been specified are “integrated iron and steel plants, coke oven plants, sponge iron plants, induction furnace and rolling mills, pellet plants, aluminium smelters, aluminium refineries, asbestos based industries, integrated cement plants, tanneries, paper and pulp, open coast coal mines, underground coal mines, coal washeries, petroleum refineries, petrochemical complexes, distilleries and sugar, pharmaceutical and chemical industries, offshore and onshore oil and gas exploration, development and production, industrial estates and river valley and hydroelectric projects”.
“The standard EC conditions shall be considered by EAC at the time of the appraisal of the proposals. EAC after due diligence, can modify, delete and add conditions based on the project-specific requirements. The recommended conditions by the EAC shall be brought in the minutes of the meetings of the EAC,” said the MoEFCC’s office memorandum on August 9.
The 165-page order details a series of “statutory requirements, air and water quality monitoring and preservation conditions, noise monitoring and prevention rules, energy conservation and waste management measures, green belt requirement, human health issues and corporate environment responsibility measures” for projects of every category to secure environment clearance.
The MoEFCC official assured that it won’t result in compromising of environmental rules. “It doesn’t mean any dilution of environmental rules of the country. It is just to streamline the process,” he added.
Part of larger efforts to help the industry?
In the last year of its tenure, the NDA government has been giving a serious push to bringing wholesale changes in India’s green laws and regulations. For instance, it is already in works to change the Indian Forest Act 1927, coastal regulation norms, the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and the national forest policy.
Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched PARIVESH (Pro-Active and Responsive facilitation by Interactive, Virtuous and Environmental Single-window Hub) on the occasion of World Biofuel Day. PARIVESH has been developed as a single-window system that automates the entire process of submitting the application and tracking the processing status of such proposals.
On its launch, India’s environment minister Harsh Vardhan emphasised that with this, “the vision of the Prime Minister for e-governance and enhancing ease of doing responsible business is being translated into action by the MoEFCC” and the environment ministry has become “more of a facilitator, than a regulator”.
Environment ministry: Facilitator or regulator?
However, this is exactly the charge of environmentalists – that the MoEFCC has become a facilitator for industry rather than playing its role of a regulator. They are sceptical of the present move.
Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the Centre for Policy Research-Namati Environmental Justice Programme, said the country is moving away from the regulatory practices of scrutiny and due diligence.
“We are moving away from the careful scrutiny and due diligence as essential requirements of a regulatory process. These changes reduce these good governance principles to mere options which expert committees can exercise at their discretion. This is not just a violation of the intent but also the requirements of the EIA notification 2006,” said Kohli.
“Preformatted list of conditions assume that each mining area, industrial site or hydropower location looks and behaves the same. It is common sense to understand that a dam in the Himalayas will different from that in the Western Ghats,” she added.
Explaining further, Kohli said there are several conditions in the standard conditions which amount to impact assessments themselves.
“For instance, preparing a wildlife conservation action plan post an approval assumes that a project can be permitted without assessing whether the impacts can be mitigated or not. What if the preparation of a conservation of the wildlife plan reveals that it is not possible to protect an elephant corridor while opening up a green field coal mine? The damage would have already been done,” said Kohli.
The fear of activists is not unfounded. The poor regulation of environmental processes has been highlighted in a March 2017 performance audit report ‘Environmental Clearance and Post Clearance Monitoring’ by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India.
The report had stressed that the MoEFCC and its offices have failed at every step in ensuring the environment is protected. It had also emphasised that the conditions based on which projects are cleared are not monitored at all and revealed that the ministry had not penalised even a single project for violation of EC conditions.