Maharashtra government's recent decision to charge a fee for environment appraisal of development projects has evoked mixed response from industry and civil society groups. While some have welcomed the move as a way to introduce a measure of transparency in the dealings of the State Environment Appraisal Committee (SEAC) and State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) with the project proponents, others have expressed apprehensions. Some others say that the Central and state government's failure to support these bodies reflects their non-seriousness on environment protection.
On May 2, the Maharashtra Department of Environment issued a government resolution (GR) (pdf), stating that project proponents in the state will now have to pay a fee ranging from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 15 lakh to the SEAC or SEIAA for investigations related to environment clearance. The money thus raised will be deposited in a bank account created for this purpose, and will be used for paying remuneration and conveyance allowances to committee members, and also for other purposes like infrastructure expenses and renting space for meetings, salaries of staff, site visits, holding public hearings and so on.
The GR states that the decision has been taken in view of the fact that state government has to bear the burden of costs of the operations of the two bodies. It further says that states like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu are already charging a similar fee, and the Central government has also permitted CRZ committees to charge a fee.
Good for transparency
Veteran conservationist Debi Goenka of Conservation Action Trust says the move is a positive one that will bring some amount of transparency in the dealings between project proponents and the environment appraisal bodies. “The Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) is already doing it,” he told Down To Earth. “As it is, neither the Central government nor Union environment ministry is willing to support SEAC, resulting in embarrassing situations where the body does not have a place to sit or access to toilets. Funds are needed and it is better that industry pays for it upfront, because it is not as if this is not already happening in an ‘underhand’ fashion.” He says that government bodies, including SEAC and SEIAA, demanding that project proponents arrange for the logistics for meetings and site visits is very common. “When there is a clear cut fee, at least the money will be accounted for, and the practice will no longer be unethical.”
EIA expert Vishwambhar Chaudhari of Oasis Environment Foundation, Pune, says the department of environment does not have its own resources, so that charging such a fee is an inevitable move. “A clear cut fee is better than government support because it makes the committee independent, and free of external pressures,” says he.
Parineeta Dandekar, water expert from South Asia Network of Dams Rivers and People, says that it can prove to be a good decision, provided it translates into more professional submissions from private project proponents. “Right now, proponents come again and again with shoddy submissions and waste time,” says she. However, she expressed concern that the fee may just turn environment appraisal into a paid service. “If the SEAC and SEIAA want to streamline and simplify their roles, then rather than linking this with payment, there is a need of an independent cell for conducting EIAs. Current EIAs done by paid consultants are very shoddy in quality and entail corruption. This also increases SEAAs and SEACs headache,” she adds.
No logic to fee, says industry
Rohit Agarwal, secretary of Vidarbha Industries Association says there was no clear logic on why this fee is being levied. “The fee is not based on the gravity of the environmental damage or any other similar concern. It reeks of being just another way of prioritizing – the ones who pay more will be cleared faster. Already the cost of getting an environment clearance are very high,” he says. Agarwal says that industry in Maharashtra is undergoing a bad phase, and with the liquidity crisis looming, it is not fair for government to tax industry further. “For the manufacturing industry, the going is getting tougher and tougher, and this only adds to the burden,” he rues.
Sudhir Paliwal of the Nagpur-based Vidarbha Environment Action Group who is himself an industrialist, disagrees. “As of now, the entire EIA and clearance process is mired in corruption. Clearances are actually acquired and sold. A case in point is the Lloyd's steel plant in Wardha, which was taken over by the Mittal group immediately after obtaining all clearances.” He says the fee will not make any difference in the clearance process. “It is better to openly than in a clandestine manner with strings attached,” he says.
Question Raised in Lok Sabha: Environment clearances to projects, 10/02/2014
Report: Consideration of proposals for TORs/Environment Clearance/CRZ Clearance involving violation of the Environment (Protection) Act, 19861, Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006 / Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, 2011
CSE Study: System of green clearances not working for environment and people and clearances not the impediment to growth