Plethora of laws

Green clearance hurdles

The SC order on environmental regulator seeks to insulate clearance mechanisms from whims and fancies of individuals. 

Recently two significant and inter-related developments that took place involving green clearances in the country have again brought into focus the contentious issue. One was the sudden resignation of Jayanti Natarajan as Union minister of state for environment (independent charge). The speculation was that she paid the price for cumbersome procedures causing  undue delays in environmental clearances (EC), not withstanding her assertion that she resigned to work for the party. 

The second was the latest order of the Supreme Court, first suggested by it in  July 2011 in Lafarge mining case in Arunachal Pradesh, directing Centre to appoint  a green regulator to not only oversee the entire procedure for ECs but also to monitor the implementation of various conditions and safeguards  without infringing upon the powers of the Union government under the Environment Protection Act. It also directed the regulators to ensure the implementation of 1988 forest policy of the country, a plain reading of which means that  all such  approvals will also have to examine  its impact on the forests.

This order is   a telling  commentary on the existing system and addresses it  by insulating the clearance mechanisms from the whims and fancies of individuals. The order also silences those who have been repeatedly complaining about the Forest Conservation Act 1980, an important part of green clearances branding it as anti-people and anti-development. Undoubtedly, there was an urgent need for more transparency and accountability in the system and the directives of the Supreme Court leaves no one in doubt as to what it wants .

 The public perception of individual attitude resulting in obfuscation, undue  delay and harassment in obtaining statutory  EC on the one hand  and often  the brushing under the carpet of serious environmental issues on the other  is reaffirmed by the above orders of the apex court. There were reports of unhappiness of many cabinet ministers and chief ministers over delay in clearing pending projects in their states. They repeatedly  demanded relaxation in the stringent environmental norms  for various infrastructure projects.

The industry too has been vociferously  complaining about these issues. On many occasions, even the judiciary has been criticised by them for undue judicial activism when the Supreme court took cognizance of various PILs, particularly  against illegal mining in various parts of the country. Even though at present, almost half of various big ticket infrastructure projects have not taken off due to coal allocation quagmire , it has not deterred them to attack and give  the impression that green is the new red. Or is it ? 

Procedural delays

There is little doubt that the plethora of laws (Environment Protection Act, Forest Conservation Act 1980,Wild life Protection Act, Forest Right Act 2005 and various rules and guidelines made therein) have all created their own bureaucratic dynamics in the prevailing  approval system at the apex of which is the political leadership. 

Then, there are usual procedural delays which can be frustrating for project proponents. These involve public hearing, environment impact assessment, and for projects involving forest land finding alternate land for compensatory plantations, panchayat clearance under Forest Rights Act, approvals of state and national wildlife boards for  area involving national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and elephant corridors and the like. There are payments to be made for net present value and compensatory afforestation cost for the forests  lost for any project. In many mega projects, opposition and objection by the greens  and PILs too contribute to the delay. By the time the project gets through, the above  maze of procedures and objections much time would have gone by resulting in cost and time over-run  and many times downright abandonment of projects. 

There is thus some truth in the complaints of delay which need to be addressed by the new regulator who should also ensure at the same time that  the hurried and  favourable environment impact assessment studies obtained by the project proponents is outrightly rejected. The apex court has pointed out that the present system has many deficiencies which need to be corrected in order to bring transparency and accountability. 

Also in many instances, the projects are submitted in a half baked and incomplete manner contributing to delays. Many times, proposals are only a smoke screen, are not serious projects  particularly those involving Public-Private Partnerships,  and are only too eager to blame green clearances delays to hide other issues like land acquisition ,financial closures etc. The latest request of the National Highway Authority of India to the Centre to cancel many such projects is an example. Failure to restart mining in catagory A and B iron ore mines in Karnataka is another.

Many times, there is tremendous pressure on authorities to sanction such half-baked and sensitive projects and the powerful lobbies have managed to remove sincere and committed  officers creating an atmosphere of uncertainty.  Also, there is perpetual shortage of competent officials at cutting edge level which, coupled with cumbersome procedures, guidelines, check lists, and various conflicting courts orders contribute to the present unacceptable situation where nothing seems to move. 

It is in this context that one should read the above orders of the highest court of the country for setting up the green regulator who it is hoped will do everything to see that green does not become red and at the same time the    environment health of the nation is well and truly protected and not be compromised.

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