Environmental activists and experts alike have recently raised serious concerns over the flurry of activity in the Union ministry for environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC). From holding virtual meetings to giving projects environmental clearance, to automatically extending mining leases and proposing new guidelines for environmental impact assessment, the ministry’s fast pace of work has made its intent suspect in the eyes of many. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened up coal mining to the private sector on June 18, conservationists saw it as part of the pattern they claim the Union government has been following in the past six years: sacrificing the environment to fast-track industrial development. While part of it is true, some concerns are based on misinformation.
Between April and May, when the entire country was under Covid lockdown, the MoEFCC examined environmental clearances for more than 190 projects in virtual meetings. Several of these projects have implications for tiger reserves, sanctuaries, notified as well as deemed eco-sensitive zones and designated wildlife corridors. Given the ministry’s emphasis on fast-tracking decision-making, the spate of meetings was not unusual. The ministry claims the time taken to decide on environmental clearance has come down from 640 days before 2014 to 108 now. The target now is to reduce it to 70-80 days. Between July 2014 and April 24, 2020, the MoEFCC has approved 2,256 of the 2,592 proposals it received for environment clearance—a clearance rate of 87 per cent. Of these, 270 projects have been in and around biodiversity hotspots and national parks.
The ministry’s alacrity has alarmed environmentalists. Most see it as evidence of unseemly haste and a lack of genuine scrutiny, which has resulted in 409 sq. km of forest area being given away to various projects since 2015, as per MoEFCC data. A February 2020 World Wildlife Fund report projected the loss to India’s GDP due to environmental degradation at over 1.5 per cent by 2050. India dropped to the 177th rank in 2018 from 155th in 2014 on the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy’s Environmental Performance Index of 180 countries.
The apprehensions among activists grew after the Union government launched the auction of 41 coal mines for commercial mining on June 18. Several of these 41 mines are located in the biodiversity-rich forest areas of central India, including a few in Hasdeo Arand, one of the largest contiguous stretches of dense forest that spans 170,000 hectares. Some projects in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand don’t even have the required forest clearance. In a letter dated June 10 to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren wrote: ‘Coal and iron ore are the two most significant minerals that would come up for auction. However, both these minerals are found in districts that have significant forest cover and host a large population of scheduled tribes and backward communities.’ Gram sabhas in Hasdeo Arand in the Surguja region of Chhattisgarh also wrote to the prime minister asking him to stop the auction of five coal blocks in the region.
Making things even murkier is a recent cabinet note by the Union ministry of mines which intends to amend the Mines & Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 2015. The ministry wants to fine-tune the clause on illegal mining to exclude mining within the lease area in violation of environment and forest clearance and lease conditions. Activists fear this may further encourage destruction of forest cover with impunity. “Strictly protected areas represent less than 5 per cent of the territory and the core of the protected areas only maybe 1-2 per cent. It is simply not rational to facilitate the exploitation of these areas as they also provide hydrological services to the people,” says Dr Priya Davidar, a retired professor of ecology and environmental sciences at Pondicherry University.
On May 12, a group of 291 scientists and conservation professionals wrote to Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar, expressing their reservations about the manner in which environmental clearances were being given during the lockdown. The letter claimed that site inspections, a crucial component of project evaluation, were being bypassed using the lockdown as an excuse; the ministry instead seemed to be relying on digital documents uploaded by project developers. Nor were public hearings possible during the lockdown, denying communities likely to be affected by the project the opportunity to give their consent officially or take legal recourse against such decisions. “We all know development is needed for every country, and India is no exception,” says Dr Bibhab Talukdar, noted environmentalist and CEO of Guwahati-based NGO Aaranyak. “However, the speedy approach current decision-makers are taking, even during COVID-19 lockdown, to approve developmental projects, often undermining the wider conservation needs, doesn’t reflect the true custodian image of the MoEFCC to conserve and protect forests, wildlife and environment. Why was the same speedy approach not shown to fill up thousands of sanctioned vacant posts in forest departments across the country to strengthen conservation?”
Several critics claim there is no provision for clearances given through video conferencing in the laws governing green clearances. To which environmental specialists involved in giving these clearances say these laws and guidelines were framed long before modern communication and therefore cannot come in the way of making a technological leap. “It must not prevent anyone from adapting to a situation that is unprecedented. There is no problem in resorting to video conferencing, especially for smaller projects,” says wildlife and climate change expert R. Sukumar, who is a member of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).
The NBWL is one of the three panels apart from the 10 Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC) and the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) that give green clearance to any project that may have an environmental impact. J.P. Gupta, who is chairman of one of the EACs, claims no hurried decision was taken during the video conferences. “A lot of scrutiny already happens before a project reaches the EAC for clearance. Unlike what activists claim, we had thorough deliberations before taking any decision. All the minutes are available online,” says Gupta.
Sukumar and Gupta also dismiss the assertion that projects were cleared without site inspections during the lockdown. “Proposals are sent to the NBWL after approval by the state wildlife board, which may also carry out its own site inspection. The National Tiger Conservation Authority too often carries out an inspection before the proposal comes to the NBWL. When the NBWL first discusses the proposal, it may also decide to send a site inspection committee, depending on the situation,” says Sukumar.
Talukdar insists the ministry is circumventing norms. “For almost six years now, a full meeting of the NBWL has not been convened. Its standing committee, which has less than a third of the NBWL members, has been taking all decisions,” he says. NBWL member Sukumar insists that while the ministry decides the quorum, no decision is taken without thoroughly examining the impact on environment. He does agree, though, that while it is fine to clear smaller projects with less likely impact online, saving time and money, big-ticket projects could have been examined later.
HAVE NORMS BEEN BROKEN?
Two such “big-ticket” projects, which triggered a massive uproar for allegedly getting cleared during the lockdown, were the coal mining project by North-Eastern Coal Field (NECF), a unit of Coal India, in the Saleki proposed reserve forest, part of the Dehing Patkai elephant reserve in Assam, and the 3,097 MW Etalin hydropower project, inside the rainforests of Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley. While conflicting media reports suggested the environment ministry had approved both projects, triggering several virtual protest campaigns, the EAC and FAC minutes reveal neither has actually got the green nod. “We’ve asked the NECF to present a site-specific mitigation plan before we even consider regularising the mining already done without forest clearance,” says Sukumar.
Independent environmentalists substantiate his claim. “I don’t know why they are circulating false news of coal mining in Dehing Patkai,” says Soumyadeep Datta, founder of Nature’s Beckon, an environmental activist group. “The state government and the Centre have no plans to destroy the wildlife sanctuary by undertaking coal mining inside it.” Incidentally, it was Nature’s Beckon that led the campaign to get Dehing Patkai declared a wildlife sanctuary in 2004.
The FAC also deferred the decision on another hugely controversial project—the survey and exploration of uranium in an 83 sq. km area in the Amrabad Tiger Reserve in Telangana—though activists created an uproar over placing the project on the agenda.
However, the EAC has cleared the Centre’s proposal to construct a new parliament building next to the existing heritage structure in Delhi. The minutes of the meeting, though, say the approval is subject to the outcome of the legal challenge to the change in land use. Civil society organisations have opposed this clearance because though the building is part of the proposed Central Vista Project, the submissions to the EAC showed it as a standalone project. A special leave petition related to land-use change for the project is pending in the Supreme Court. “We have an extremely faulty and fait accompli recommendation of the EAC. It has seen the new Parliament as a standalone project from the central vista redevelopment and deliberately underplayed the social and environmental impact,” says Kanchi Kohli, an environment law researcher with the Centre for Policy Research. Professor T. Haque, agriculture economist and chairman of the EAC clearing the new parliament project, did not respond to india today’s queries.
DO WE NEED FAST APPROVALS?
While the government’s rush to clear projects may raise eyebrows, all stakeholders agree on the need to simplify environmental laws and make clearances transparent and free of bureaucratic tangles. Complex laws and bureaucratic stalling are estimated to cause a delay of 238 days in clearances. “A file goes through 35 layers when going to the Union government and another 35 on the way back,” says R.N. Saxena, former principal chief conservator of forests, Madhya Pradesh. Sukumar says many complications arise out of erratic demarcation of forest areas. “We need to rationalise the boundaries of national sanctuaries. In certain areas, people need the Supreme Court’s approval to build a toilet in their homes,” he says.
To introduce transparency, the government has taken the assessment process online and made minutes of environmental clearance meetings public. Yet, most of its initiatives to streamline green laws remain ad hoc. In 2011, the apex court had ruled that an independent environment regulator be set up to oversee the clearance process, but there has been no action yet. The focus instead has been on making environmental clearance laws more industry-friendly. The draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020, which was put up for public consultation on March 23, is being seen as one such move.
NEW, OR ZERO ASSESSMENT?
The government claims this notification, released two days before the lockdown, is aimed at revamping the 2006 version to strengthen regulatory processes and institutional mechanisms governing environmental clearances. Unwilling to buy the argument, environmental activists say the notification comes tied with other precarious provisions that dilute environmental laws. For instance, the draft enables the Union government to designate a project ‘strategic’. Once categorised thus, it is exempt from public hearings, and only government agencies or regulatory authorities can red-flag deviations.
The notification also ran into controversy after an RTI response revealed that Javadekar had overruled senior officers and the proposal to extend the deadline for public comments and objections. The draft notification had initially prescribed 60 days, till May 23, for comments and objections. On May 7, the deadline was extended by another 38 days, till June 30, even though senior ministry officials proposed a 180-day time-frame from the original date of March 23 to elicit public feedback. It was only in response to a PIL that the Delhi High Court extended the deadline till August 11.
For the first 60 days since the notification was issued, the country was in lockdown,” says Delhi-based environmental activist Vikrant Tongad, who obtained the documents under RTI. “The postal department was not working. Internet connections are not available everywhere. Big files and documents can’t be sent over email. People cannot meet and discuss the implications or even stage a protest. Why the hurry to end consultations at a time when most people are caught up with fighting a pandemic? Javadekar deliberately reducing the time-frame gives us every reason to be suspicious.”
Javadekar refutes these allegations saying the EIA notification is just a draft and not policy yet and people were given 60 days to send in their recommendations (see interview). Ministry officials assert that even the draft was prepared following wider consultation with various stakeholders, including state governments, in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and Bhubaneswar over one year. “Even before the draft was published, we sent out 78,000 emails to concerned people, intimating them about the draft,” says an official.
Critics remain unconvinced. Former environment minister and now chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on environment, forests and climate change Jairam Ramesh wrote a letter to Javadekar demanding the draft notification be first discussed in the standing committee. “What is the urgency in ramming through a far-reaching notification at a time of grave national crisis?” he asks.
A few provisions of the draft notification also betray the government’s intent to rush things. For instance, it seeks to reduce the time allowed to the public to submit their responses for a project seeking environmental clearance from 30 days to 20. For mining projects, the process is to be limited to the district where the project is located even if its impact goes beyond it. The validity of environmental approval for mining projects was also extended to 50 years from the existing 30 years.
MINE FOR ALL
EIA 2020 apart, activists are resisting the FAC’s March 30 recommendation, which automatically extended the validity of forest clearance for government-owned mines whose leases were recently renewed for 20 years. In a separate decision, FAC guidelines decreed that forest clearance of mines whose leases expired on March 31 could be transferred to the new lessees. Leases of around 40 mines expired on March 31. Experts ask how their previous environmental violations can be excused. “The claim that existing EIA laws delay projects are made mostly by some industries. Today, renewable energy is competing with coal, and easing the access to coal is helping one industry at the expense of others that can do better in terms of environmental conservation,” says Davidar.
While there can be no quarrel with the Modi government’s desire to fast-track decisions and cut down the time taken to give environmental clearance, we also need long-term reform not just to ease business but also for a stable and robust mechanism to protect the environment. “Protecting the environment is our top priority and there is no compromise on that,” Javadekar promises. But most environmentalists remain sceptical. n
with Amitabh Srivastava