The T S R Subramanian committee, constituted about three months ago to review laws related to environment and forest protection, has recommended some big-ticket changes to the rules and legislation. These include a complete overhaul of certain laws, special fast-track dispensation for power, mining and linear projects, self-certification of compliance by industry and diluting the powers of the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
The committee's recommendations, made in a report given to Environment & Forests Minister Prakash Javadekar recently and reviewed by Business Standard, are for a revamp of regulations and laws concerning environment, both pollution and forest-related. Several of these changes have either already been in the pipeline or previously discussed within the ministry. Some of these were suggested (or partly processed) during the previous government's term.
The committee has suggested an umbrella law to help set up new national and state-level regulators that would also take the powers of the existing pollution control boards. The law - Environmental Management Act - would do away with the need for separate Acts to regulate air and water pollution that empower states to give the consent to operate and establish industrial units.
The national and state-level regulators should be able to use the know-how of existing technical institutions and universities, while they appraise projects, as well as monitor their operations.
The law, as recommended by the Subramanian committee, reduces the powers of the National Green Tribunal by setting up special district-level courts to deal with infringement of environmental laws and an administrative tribunal (not a judicial one) to review clearances. A judicial review of project clearances should be the final step, and not the first stage of appeal, the committee has suggested. It has also advised infringement of laws be distinguished and categorised and prosecution and arrest be permitted only in the case of serious offences.
The committee has backed industry's long-standing demand that a self-certification system for compliance with environmental laws be introduced. This system, to be built on 'utmost good faith', would depend largely on project developers disclosing information and being held accountable in post facto review of project operations in areas chosen on random sampling.
A shrunk no-go area for miners - limited to the existing protected wildlife areas and forest patches with more than 70 per cent cover - has also been recommended. The original no-go area plan included wildlife corridors, lands with high biodiversity value (regardless of forest cover) and lands that acted as catchment of rivers.
The high-level panel has also suggested an amendment to the Forest Rights Act to provide a clear exception for all linear projects - roads, pipelines and power lines, etc. The high-level panel had not been tasked to review either the Forest Rights Act or the National Green Tribunal Act.
It has also recommended that the powers of the National Board for Wildlife (which has outside experts on board) in reviewing any changes to national parks and sanctuaries be handed over to the ministry.
A special 'fast-track' overall dispensation for linear, mining and power projects has also been recommended, besides an overhaul of the forest clearance process to further reduce the time taken.
The panel has advised that more kinds of projects and those larger in size than the ones permitted today be appraised at the state level, and not reviewed at the Centre, for environmental integrity.
The panel has also advised the government to firm up a legal definition of what constitutes 'forests'. The present laws do not define the areas where forest laws should apply. The definition was derived by a Supreme Court order that had extended the application of forest laws to lands that might not be classified as forest land on government records.
The court order included lands where trees of more than a certain density grew, regardless of the type or ownership of lands.
The five-member group said, while the compensatory afforestation asked of project proponents should be increased, their role should be limited to providing finances to state forest departments, and not beyond that. It also suggested a five-fold revision of rates of 'net present value' (NPV) that companies are required to pay for use of forestlands.
The panel suggested that a specialised and separate environment service be created as another All-India Service cadre.
Among the ideas and changes in the report that the environment ministry has already begun to process or is discussing are dilution of NGT's role, dilution of the power of tribals to give consent to projects, the legal redefinition of forests, shrinking of the no-go areas and easing of the appraisal regime for power and other projects. The process for upward revision of the NPV rates had begun during the previous government's term, and a committee was constituted to suggest new rates.
The creation of a new national and state-level authority was pushed by former environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, as well. But it faced opposition from many quarters for a variety of reasons. The present government has already made several amendments to the existing regulations; and other critical changes the high-level panel has recommended are already in the pipeline. These include a single-window clearance system, instead of multiple channels, for projects.
WHAT THE PANEL RECOMMENDS
New umbrella law to subsume existing environment laws, the powers of pollution control boards
National and state-level authority to appraise and monitor projects
Fast-track clearance for power, mining and linear projects
Self-certification of compliance by projects and random review
Larger and more projects to be appraised at the state level
Amendment to Forest Rights Act to dilute consent powers
Administrative tribunal instead of judicial National Green Tribunal to review clearances on appeal
District-level courts to decide on infringement of green laws
Limited no-go forest areas where mining is banned
Definition of 'forests' to be formulated to reduce litigation
New environment service as part of All India Services cadre
- Companies to pay more for compensatory afforestation but not be involved beyond financing