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In the last few days, the NDA government has taken three important decisions which will have a bearing on the state of environmental laws in the country and how they are implemented. The cabinet’s decision to set up a ministerial committee to suggest the design and structure of an environment regulator is in response to a long-standing demand. The Supreme Court had ordered that it should be set up by March this year but the deadline was extended because of the general elections. It is to be set up under the Environment Protection Act but there are different views on the extent of its powers. When it is set up, it is expected to evaluate projects, enforce environmental conditions for approvals, impose penalties on violators and act as a co-ordinating agency between pollution control boards and governments. Governments do not want to give the body an independent and autonomous status. But it must be ensured that it is not a powerless body which will work as an extension of the government.

Another decision was to form a high-level committee under former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian to review the existing gamut of environmental laws and update them on the basis of current requirements. They include laws on environment, forests, wildlife, water, air etc. These laws need to be better correlated too. There is a running controversy in the country over the relative importance of environment and development. Extreme postures on both sides of the debate have not served the national interest. A number of important projects with investments running into thousands of crores have been stuck for want of environmental clearance. On the other side, neglect of environmental issues has created situations which might pose a threat to the wellbeing of future generations. There is the need for a better balance between the demands of development and the needs of environment. Many existing laws may have to be reworked in this perspective, and the sooner this is done the better.

The decision to decentralise clearances of projects below a certain size will help to speed up the process. The ministry plans to make regional empowered committees in different parts of the country competent to grant approvals for projects requiring up to 40 acres of forest land. This will do away with the need to go to the highest level for decisions on even small projects. Since most projects are small is size, this can avert delays to a great extent.

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