The Centre is all set to overhaul environmental and forest regulations, policies, and laws once the two-day conference of state forest ministers and officials is over. The conference will start on Monday with Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing it.
After effecting some 100-odd changes to regulations through executive orders, the Union environment ministry has set in motion more structural and policy-level changes, many of them in line with the PM's wish to have a regulatory regime providing 'ease of business'.
The changes include a revision of the Indian Forest Act, 1927; Environment (Protection) Act, 1986; Wildlife Protection Act, 1972; National Forest Policy,1988; and, the National Wildlife Policy, 2002.
The ministry is also working on how to do away with the additional clearances required from the states under the Water and Air Acts by merging these into a single-window clearance system.
The time taken for this single comprehensive clearance is also set to be considerably shortened. The two-stage process at the moment requires companies to get project specific terms of references for environmental assessment. This assessment along with public hearing, then, becomes the bedrock for an appraisal leading to the final clearance. The government has worked out standardised terms of references for each industrial and development sector and most projects would now have to only use these as the template. This is expected to bring down the time taken for clearances.
The need for public hearing and renewal of clearances has already been diluted for many industrial activities and mining through executive orders.
In what is likely to be a boon for the real-estate sector in the national capital region, the government has also formulated a new legal definition of forests, which would exclude forests that are not classified as such in government records. With unresolved conflict between revenue and forest departments and different state classification systems, many good forest patches remain classified as non-forestlands in government records. All these areas - such as some community forest patches in Aravalli hills - will not require a forest clearance to be chopped once the new definition is inserted into the laws.
The change of definition will also free the plantation sector from stringent forest regulations, which many consider have stifled forestry practices and choked supply of wood products in the country.
The Union environment ministry is also finalising a proposal for involving the private sector in afforestation on government forestlands - a controversial move that has been shelved several times in the past. Civil society groups and environmentalists have opposed it fearing the impacts on millions who are dependent on the forestlands for their fuel, fodder and livelihood needs. The ministry said the move would "improve productivity of forests lands and realise the optimum potential of the forests for the benefit of the country" and also "enhance the supply of raw materials for wood based industry for meeting domestic requirement of wood products and to save precious foreign exchange".
The government plans to make amendments to the green laws in two stages, with mild changes in the current session of Parliament and radical changes in the next. While consultants have been shortlisted for the complete overhaul of laws, ministry officials are working on the changes that could be tabled in this Parliamentary session.
A senior official said: "It's a tight deadline, but we are hoping to get some amendments vetted in time to table them in the current session."
Most of the changes being brought are in tune with the T S R Subramanian committee report. The report continues to face all-around criticism from environmentalists, but the government has accepted it in principle.
A revision of the coastal zone regulations is also on the anvil with the government having already made some exceptions for projects to come up along the shorelines.
"We are discussing these with the state ministers and officials over two days and do not expect any objections to these reforms. The proposal to do away with the state level additional clearances might require some effort to convince the states," the official added.
He said the two days would also be used to clarify the Centre's positions on the plethora of executive orders that have been passed in the previous months for 'ease of business'.
Business Standard had earlier reported more than 60 of these were done on the demands of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) though officials defended the saying the PMO had merely recommended a review and the changes were done after taking a considered view.
While the environment ministry has expressed the need to change focus more on monitoring than holding back clearances of projects, this is unlikely to happen at least in the current year with the Budget cuts preventing any enhancement of manpower in the regional monitoring offices.
CHANGES ON ANVIL
Green policies and laws to change for 'ease of doing business'
- Change definition of forests to remove large patches from the purview of forest laws
- Create land banks that industry can easily access for compensatory afforestation
- Ready digital maps of forestlands in all districts
- Severely diluted inviolate forest areas or no mining zone to be notified by states
- Tribal consent for using forestlands to be done away with
- Discounted rates of net present value to be charged from industry for using forests
- Standardised terms of reference for environment impact assessment studies by each industrial sector
- Do away with state's environmental clearances
- Revision of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, with greater powers to the Centre
- Private investments using government forestlands
- A tree-land trading scheme to help industry meet its compensatory afforestation targets
- Amendments to the Environment Protection Act and Forest Conservation Act, 1980, in two phases
- Amendments to the coastal zone regulations
- Review National Forest Policy
- Third party verification and monitoring of industries to be put in place
- National Green Tribunal's powers to be curtailed
- Self-certification of pollution levels by industries to set in
- Chopping of trees for linear projects,even before final forest clearances, cannot be challenged in court till final clearance
- Integrated forest, wildlife and environment clearance online
- No public hearings for projects inside industrial estates or parks with existing general clearances
- Dilution of Coastal Regulation Zone for hotels, resorts
- Made site-inspections prior to clearances an exception
- All highway projects in border states without public hearing
- Expansion of coal mining by a larger percentage without public hearings
- No need to have prior possession of land to acquire green clearance
- Eased clearance for projects near inter-state boundaries and protected areas
- Fast-tracked clearances for linear projects such as pipelines, highways and canals
- Most coal blocks taken out of inviolate areas
- Irrigation projects with Cultural Command Areas of less than 2000 ha and biomass-based thermal power projects up to 15 Mw put on Automatic Approval Route
- No extra CSR expenditure by industries for green clearances
- No additional conditions over thermal and hydro-power projects by experts besides those by ministry
- No additional studies to be asked of project developers
- Preliminary surveys by industries in wildlife areas do not require central clearances
- Moratoriums lifted in extremely polluted industrial areas
- Index measuring industrial belts put in suspension