New initiative

New initiative

The Central government’s decision to set up an independent regulator on environment, called the National Environment and Monitoring Authority, is welcome when the debate on sustainable development is becoming increasingly acrimonious.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh announced last week that the authority would be set up soon. He said that the functioning of the regulator could lead to a complete change in the process of granting environmental clearances and admitted that the present system has the risk of becoming a ‘hated licence-permit raj.’ He says the authority will be staffed by dedicated professionals and  will work on a full time basis to evolve better and more objective standards of scrutiny.

The proposal is not new but has taken a lot of time to get acted upon by the government.  In fact a national environment appellate authority was set up in 1997 but it did not have adequate powers and was not effective. The present proposal looks more promising.

At present the clearances are given by the ministry of environment which does not have the expertise and manpower to do its job. Bureaucratic delays and bunglings are common. More importantly, its decisions are often ad hoc and political interference is a major problem.

Pressures from interested lobbies, either on the environment side or the industry side, distort or delay decisions. Recent controversies relating to Posco, Lavasa, Vedanta and many other projects are examples of the failure of the government to find acceptable solutions. A professional body which has the expertise to study the issues involved and has the power to grant clearances will be much more effective than the ministry. Since it is independent and autonomous it will have greater credibility.

Environmental concerns are becoming more urgent because there is much more data, information and awareness on the subject now. Since economy is growing at a fast rate and the pace has to be kept up, timely clearances for projects are important. The rising economic cost of delays  and  the high social cost of protests and agitations can be avoided if there is a speedy and acceptable system for clearances.

 

If projects are vetted objectively on the basis of technical data and later monitored for compliance there will be less scope for complaints. It will remove the element of discretion, which is not often exercised with fairness, from the present system.

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