Through a quick series of notifications, the Union environment ministry has eased rules for mining, roads, power and irrigation projects and other industrial sectors. It has diluted a host of regulations related to environment, forest and tribal rights. Besides, sources in the ministry say, more changes in regulations are in the pipeline.
Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar had earlier done away with the requirement of public hearing for coal mines below 16 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) wishing to expand output by up to 50 per cent. This has now been extended to mines above 16 mtpa, permitting them to mine up to five mtpa more without consulting affected people. Public hearings, the only occasion when affected people are consulted for clearances, have in the past turned violent at times, or seen protests leading to litigation.
Union Power & Coal Minister Piyush Goyal had approached the environment ministry in May requesting similar rules for expansion of coal output in big and small mines. The environment ministry had on May 30 exempted public hearing if the increased mine output was up to four mtpa. The Centre, on the request of the coal ministry, had in June also decided to consider group clearances for Coal India Ltd mines that were in close proximity, rather than individual project proposals.
The need for consent from gram sabhas for prospecting in forests has also been done away with. This dilutes the Forest Rights Act, which requires the consent of tribals before forest land is diverted to industrial activity. Alongside, inspection of mining projects by ministry officials for plots less than 100 hectares has been removed. The ministry has also set aside the requirement of compensatory afforestation for prospectors.
The government recently laid down that instead of tribal village councils certifying their rights had been settled and they had consented to projects, the district administrations would be empowered to do so in 60 days, regardless of the number of villages affected by the projects. Settling of rights is a lengthy process and in many parts of the country it is far from complete.
Besides these, the government has also amended the environment impact assessment notification of 2006, letting several industries up to a certain size go to state governments for clearance, instead of approaching the Centre. Industry has usually found it easier to get clearance from state governments.
* Norms for protective ring against polluting industries around wildlife areas diluted
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has also permitted mid-sized polluting industries to operate within five km of national parks and sanctuaries with state clearances, compared with the 10-km limit imposed by the Supreme Court. This has been done by changing the pollution-related classification of industries.
Also, the amended environment impact assessment notification allows coal tar processing units to get clearances from state governments.Mineral beneficiation projects up to 0.5 mtpa will also be cleared by state governments. Earlier, only those up to 0.1 mtpa capacity were allowed to approach the states.
Irrigation projects below 2,000 hectares need not apply for clearances anymore and those between 2,000 and 10,000 hectares can be cleared by state governments. By also separating power from irrigation projects, developers can now take projects piecemeal to different agencies for clearance.
Business Standard had previously reported that the NDA government had suspended a pollution index-based moratorium on new industries in critically polluted areas like Singrauli and Vapi. Instead, it has asked its experts to revise the index.
The government has also taken the teeth out of the National Board of Wildlife. The board's standing committee, now without independent wildlife and ecology experts, is slated to clear several dozen projects at its meeting on August 12.
A host of other changes in norms for environment and forest clearance are also being discussed within the environment ministry and the Prime Minister's Office, alongside a review of the powers of the National Green Tribunal.