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Environmentalists see red over green sops

Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

A self-certification benefit for polluting industries and a three-year exemption from certain procedural norms for those seeking environmental clearance at the state level are among the sweeping changes proposed by the Manmohan Singh government in what is seen as an election-eve gift to industry.

The proposed changes, notified by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) on January 19, 2009 are to be taken up by the government at the end of a 60-day period given for public comment. That period ended last Saturday.

What is proposed in the draft notification (S.O. 195 (E) issued by the MoEF is a generous relaxation of the provisions of a 2006 law, the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification. This notification requires projects that cause pollution, displacement, destruction of natural resources, whether from greenfield ventures or through expansion, to comply with a number of laws. These laws include the Environment Protection Act, Forest Conservation Act, Wildlife Protection Act, Water and Air (Control of Pollution) Act, in addition to a range of international treaties, in particular the Rio Declaration of 1992.

The proposed amendment sweeps aside most of these requirements. Instead, industries can expand simply by certifying that they are not polluting. Among the sectors that will benefit from this procedure are mining, power and petrochemicals, a range of manufacturing industries, in addition to dredging, shipping, port development, building and construction and industrial estates.

Kept under wraps till a series of Right to Information (RTI) petitions filed by a Delhi-based advocacy group forced the hand of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), the draft amendment has caused outrage among environmentalists. The changes are disastrous, according to Kanchi Kohli of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group of Delhi, which filed the RTIs.

“The proposed amendments and exemption not only belittle the need for a rigorous regulatory regime, but go totally against the spirit of the principles of natural justice, which demands that the EIA process be strengthened. The present set of proposed amendments weakens the already pro-industry clearance regime,” alleges Kalpavriksh.

Since the 2006 EIA notification, the MoEF had cleared 2,019 projects till August 2008 — an average of 84 projects a month. On the other hand, only 25 projects have either been rejected or sent back for review/reconsideration. Compared to this, just over 4,000 projects were cleared on the 20 years between 1986 and 2006.

Kohli points out that this massive increase in current clearances means that less time is available to members of the environment assessment committees to scrutinise each project and take a considered view on it. However, the PM has gone on record that “a long time was being taken for environment and forest clearances and there was a need to shorten the time frame for grant of the clearance”.

Another environmental group, the Bangalore-based Environment Support Group is spearheading a national campaign against the proposed amendments. The Campaign for Environmental Justice, India, has launched an online campaign asking the PM to keep the amendments in abeyance till a new government is in power “and is able to take a fresh and independent decision on this matter”. If not, “we will be compelled to move the matter before the Election Commission of India for effective and appropriate action,” says the letter to the PM which has been signed by several hundred people since it was posted online on Saturday night. 

Leo Saldanha of ESG told Business Standard that the campaign plans to approach the Election Commission on Monday (March 23). Legal opinion is divided on whether the model code of conduct would apply to issuance of a final notification. Some lawyers argue that this could be construed as the “normal business of the government”, especially since the draft notification was gazetted on January 19, others say this constitutes a policy change and could invite the provisions of the model conduct rules. Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan, for one, believes the government should not ahead with the amendments at this stage on this account.  

One of the reasons offered for granting such sweeping concessions is that MoEF was unable to create statutory environmental monitoring and clearances agencies, such as the State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities and State Expert Appraisal Committees, in several states since the EIA Notification was passed. “Astonishingly, the failure to institute appropriate regulatory infrastructure is now being offered as a reason to comprehensively weaken, even negate, India’s environmental regulatory framework,” says the letter to Manmohan Singh.

The environmentalists’ lobby has also warned the PM of the international ramifications of the proposed changes in the EIA. “Nowhere in the history of environmental regulation in the world have such sweeping concessions been accorded by any government at any point in time,” says the protest letter. “In fact, such a move is likely to be criticised globally as extending unfair advantage to Indian industry by lowering globally acceptable environmental standards for production, a factor that would weigh heavily against India’s standing in the climate change negotiations.”

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First Published: Mon, March 23 2009. 00:08 IST