Complaints against green clearance a smokescreen for other issues

Is Green the new Red? Two recent significant and interrelated developments that took place involving environmental clearances in the country have again brought into focus the above contentious issue.

One was the sudden resignation of  Jayanti Natrajan as the minister of state for environment (independent charge) and the speculation that she paid the price for cumbersome procedures causing undue delays in environmental clearances, not withstanding her assertion that she resigned to work for the party.
Another was the latest order of the Supreme Court, first suggested by it in july 2011 in Lafarge mining case in Arunachal Pradesh directing the Central government to appoint a green regulator to not only oversee the entire procedures for environmental clearances but also to monitor the implementation of various conditions and safeguards without infringing upon the powers of the Union 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 their impact on the forests.

This order is a telling comment on the existing system and addresses it by insulating the clearance mechanisms from the whim 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. In fact, one honourable minister who was in charge of the above ministry not too long ago laid the blame for Naxal problem at the door step of foresters, perhaps out of exasperation. Undoubtedly there was an urgent need for more transparency and accountability in the system and the directives of the Supreme Court leave no one in doubt as to what it wants.

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

The industry captains too have been vociferously complaining about these issues and have often blamed green delays for the present economic slow down in the country. In fact on many occasions even the judiciary has been criticised by them for their alleged judicial activism when the Supreme Court took cognisance of various PILs particularly against illegal mining in various parts of he country.

Procedural delays

Even though almost half of various big ticket infrastructure projects have not taken off due to coal allocation quagmire, it has not deterred them from attacking and giving the impression that environment is the main obstacle. There is no doubt that a plethora of laws have 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 and state and National Wild life Boards approvals for areas involving national parks, wild life sanctuaries and elephant corridors and the like. There are also monetary compensation 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 overrun and many times downright abandonment of projects. There is thus some truth in the complaints of delay which needs to be addressed by the new regulator who should also ensure at the same time that the hurried and favourable EIA studies obtained by the project proponents is outrightly rejected.

Also in many instances the projects are submitted in a half baked and incomplete manner contributing to above delays. These proposals will not be having all details, maps and statutory informations when they are submitted in the initial stage. In fact it is seen that many proposals are only a smoke screen and are not serious projects in the immediate time frame particularly those involving Public-Private Partnership and they are only too eager to blame green clearances for delays to hide other issues like land acquisition, financial closures etc.

The latest request of NHAI to government to cancel many such projects is an example. Failure to restart mining in category A and B mines in Karnataka is another. Many a time 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.

(The writer is a retired chief conservator of forests)

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