Clearances to coal mining projects has been a priority for Narendra Modi government
The BJP’s manifesto released during the 2014 general elections did mention about environmental governance, but with a twist. The plan for environmental management was largely talked about under the subject “industry”, instead of “flora, fauna and environment”. There was a clear emphasis on framing of environmental laws in a way that aids speedy clearances and removal of bottlenecks and leaves no scope for confusion.
During its first year in the Centre, the government has started to roll out measures to live up to this philosophy steadily.
According to the available data, in the past eleven months (until April 2015), the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has given environmental clearances (EC), including new and expansion projects, to 187 development projects in major sector-,mining, thermal power, hydropower, iron and steel, cement, infrastructure and industrial estates.
Coal gets a kick
With the pretext of economic and energy needs of the country, a special attention has been given to granting environmental clearances for the coal sector. Not only the number of clearances but also the easing of processes and diluting of restrictions for coal projects are a testimony to this focus on coal. For instance, provisions of public hearing, with respect to coal mining projects, have been significantly relaxed and more and more coal mining expansion projects have been exempted from the requirement of public hearing. Moreover, coal projects have also been allowed in critically-polluted coalfields, keeping in abeyance the moratorium on projects in these areas that was re-instated in September 2013.
In order to expedite coal production from the coal mines, whose allocation stood cancelled by Supreme Court’s order of September last year and are now being auctioned, the environment ministry has eased the transfer of clearances.
A notification issued by MoEF&CC in March 2015 allowed transfer of ECs from those granted the previous coal mine allottees to new owners, without any additional approval.
The easing of the clearance transfer process has been brought about by amending the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification (EIA), 2006. The EIA Notification, until now, required a no objection certificate to be obtained from the original holder of the EC and also from the concerned authority, when a particular project or activity changes hands.
The March notification specified that “where allocation of coal block is cancelled in any legal proceeding or by the government following regulatory provisions”, the EC pertaining to such coal block can be transferred to the new lease holder. Such transfer of clearance can happen without obtaining any “no objection” permit from the company that originally had the EC, or from the concerned regulatory authority. The clearance will also remain valid for the same period as it was originally given.
Side-lined interests of people
“Fast tracking” was the buzzword this season. Though various measures are under consideration for speedy dealing of clearances, diluting the requirements of public hearing for some sectors or project categories is one example of the “fast track” decisions.
“Public hearings” are mandated under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification of 2006 in order to give the community an opportunity to express their concerns and opinion about a proposed development activity. However, in the recent years, the provision has been diluted systematically. The trend continued in the last year as well. The MoEF&CC issued three notifications referring to such exemptions. Though this initiated with the UPA government in 2012, the move by the new government came in quick successions. The justification for such exemption, as specified in the July 2014 office memorandum of MoEF&CC, is “to quickly ramp up coal production for enhancing power production in public interest”. The same reason—public interest—is reiterated in a September memorandum. The tree notifications were for:
More projects to be cleared by states
On July 31, 2014, the then minister of state for MoEF&CC, Prakash Javadekar, in a written response to the Rajya Sabha, mentioned that the ministry is working towards streamlining environmental clearance (EC) process by “delegating more powers to the State level Environment Impact Assessment Authorities (SEIAAs). However, the capacity and accountability of the state level clearance authorities, the SEIAAs and the SEACs, is one of the major issues concerning environmental clearances at the state level. As far as projects cleared by the state authorities are concerned, there is no clarity about the monitoring authority, as this has not been specified under the EIA Notification 2006. What matters is though devolving power to state authorities over time is justified, this must only come after such state level institutions are strengthened and made accountable. Otherwise, this will only mean that projects will be cleared with less scrutiny and thereafter their operations will continue without proper fulfillment of conditions.
The process of delegating more power to the state to clear more projects has come through amending a “schedule” in the EIA Notification, 2006 and placing more projects under category B. According to the EIA Notification 2006, depending on the spatial extent and potential impacts of proposed development projects, they are broadly categorised into A and B. While all category A projects are appraised by a Central expert appraisal committee (EAC) of the Union environment ministry and cleared by the Union ministry, category B will be cleared by state authorities—SEIAAs, following appraisal by state EACs (SEAC).
The June 2014 EIA Notification amendment
The amendment involved the inclusion of certain project categories, earlier not specified under the 2006 Notification schedule, by placing them under category B. Revisions were also made in some of the existing sectors to categorise more types of projects as category B. Modifications were made in sectors such as thermal power, river valley, mining and other industrial sectors such as paper and pulp, distilleries and fertilisers. Some salient changes are as follows:
Thermal power plant: Two new fuel types used in thermal power plants - “biomass” and municipal solid non-hazardous waste”- were introduced to distinguish projects placed under category B. Following types of thermal power projects can be cleared by states:
Moreover, the following were exempted: plants up to 15MW capacity, based on biomass or non hazardous municipal solid waste using auxiliary fuel such as coal, lignite/petroleum products up to 15 per cent; and, waste heat boilers without any auxiliary fuel.
Coal tar processing units: All projects to be cleared by the state authority.
Mineral beneficiation: Projects of less than 0.5 MTPA capacity will now be cleared by states. Earlier, state authorities were entitled to clear projects below 0.1 MTPA capacity.
Irrigation projects and River valley projects: Addition of “irrigation projects” in the schedule to distinguish it from river valley projects
December 2014 EIA Notification amendment: It gave further clarifications for projects under category B
Allowing projects to come up in critically polluted areas
The MoEF&CC had imposed a moratorium till August 31, 2010 on consideration of projects for environmental clearance to be located in 43 critically polluted areas (CPA)/industrial clusters identified by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). At that time, it was envisaged that during the period of moratorium, time bound action plans will be prepared by the respective State Pollution Control Boards (SPCB) or pollution control committees (PCC) for improving the environmental quality in these industrial clusters/areas. The action plans so prepared would be finalised by CPCB. However the moratorium was extended from time to time beyond the stipulated period.
Though many of the industrial areas showed improvement in the quality of environment between 2010 and 2013, when CPCB conducted monitoring in all the 43 CPAs between February and April, 2013, eight did not show any improvement. The eight areas including Ghaziabad (UP), Indore (MP), Jharsuguda (Orissa), Ludhiana (Punjab) , Panipat (Haryana) , Patancheru - Bollaram (AP.), Singraulli (UP and MP) and Vapi (Gujarat), had high CEPI scores and were still critically polluted, actually were worse off. Observing that in September 17, 2013, vide an Office Memorandum (OM), moratorium was re-imposed in these eight areas though it was lifted from these areas earlier.
But in the last one year, the NDA government has substantially diluted this preventive attempt. A few instances:
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