Small coal mining projects have been exempted from public hearings; moratorium on expansion of industries in critically polluted areas has been lifted
The environment of coal-rich Singrauli region, a critically polluted industrial region spread over eastern Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, faces a double whammy. Small coal mines, owned mostly by India’s public sector undertaking, Coal India Limited (CIL), have now been allowed to expand their capacity without any public hearing. What’s more, a moratorium imposed on expansion of industries in the region has been lifted by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC).
On Wednesday, the Economic Times reported that MoEF&CC has eased the norms for expansion of coal mining projects producing up to 8 million tonnes of coal in a year across the country. Further, the ministry has also agreed to a proposal to adopt a cluster approach in clearing smaller mines in the coal-rich belts in the nation.
On the other hand, in a bid to arrest the slow growth of industries and manufacturing, the ministry also lifted a moratorium on eight critically polluted clusters across the country. According to sources, the information had already been made public by Gujarat state environment minister, Ganpat Vasava, earlier this month. In a public rally and later in an interview to a local newspaper, he said that moratorium on critically polluted clusters have already been lifted.
A senior ministry official later confirmed the development. The official, not wanting to be named, also said that the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) would be re-assessed by the ministry. The official could not produce a date for the said order.
According to the Daily News and Analysis, which quoted the order on Wednesday, “It has been decided to keep in abeyance until further orders the [earlier] office memorandum [September 2013 order] to the extent it related to the re-imposition of moratorium in eight critically polluted clusters till Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) re-assesses the CEPI, taking into account all constituents of index as originally envisaged in 2009.”
For coal rich areas, such as Singrauli, where locals have been facing health problems (See ‘India’s Minamata’ and ‘Singrauli pollution a matter of serious concern, admits high powered committee’), the decisions are a big blow.
Expanding on Congress’ legacy
In September 2012, former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan started easing the norms for expansion of small coal mines with production levels of up to 8 million tonnes per annum (See ‘New Green Clearance Procedures make coal expansion easy’). In December, the same year, Natarajan exempted coal mines with plans to increase production by as much as 25 per cent from holding public hearings as part of the environment clearance process.
On Wednesday, the BJP-led NDA government that assumed power this May has exempted small coal mines with plans to increase production by as much as 50 per cent or 1 million tonnes per annum. Earlier, in January, the ministry, which was then headed by Veerappa Moily, increased the limit to 50 per cent but small mines availing the one time exemption of public hearing under rules of 2012 could not avail the exemption. They also can now avail the exemption, According to MoEF&CC, about 400 coal mines are operating with a production capacity up to 8 million tonnes per annum.
On top of this, MoEF&CC in a meeting with coal ministry agreed to a proposal which is likely to help boost coal production, especially that of Coal India Limited. The environment ministry will be adopting a cluster-based approach in clearing these mines with one public hearing, one production limit and one set of pollution control norms instead of clearing individual mine leases.
According to coal ministry officials, the cluster-based approach will help public sector companies such as Coal India to boost their production in order to meet targets. For this, 94 such clusters have been identified by the ministry across the country. Coal India has often blamed the environment ministry for slump in the production as clearances cause delays.
CEPI to be reassessed
According to senior officials, MoEF&CC has also asked CPCB to re-assess the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) on the basis of which the latter had identified 43 polluted clusters across the country in 2009.
Developed by CPCB along with experts from Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, CEPI is used as a tool to conduct a nation-wide environmental assessment of industrial clusters. The first CEPI assessment revealed 43 such industrial clusters were having a CEPI score greater than 70 (on a scale of 0 to 100); these were labelled as critically polluted areas. Due to their dismal performance in following the norms set by pollution control boards followed by a failure to implement environmental management plans in these clusters right from the beginning of the assessment, MoEF&CC introduced an ad-hoc moratorium on expansion of these clusters in 2010. The previous UPA regime led by Congress stopped issuing environmental clearances to industries in these clusters. In the span of four years, the critically polluted clusters where norms were adhered to, UPA imposed the moratorium twice. In September 2013, the environment ministry had noted that despite the implementation of the action plans in these clusters, pollution has only increased.
These eight critically polluted areas are: Ghaziabad (Uttar Pradesh), Indore (Madhya Pradesh), Jharsuguda (Odisha), Ludhiana (Punjab), Panipat (Haryana), Patancheru – Bollaram (Andhra Pradesh), Singrauli (Uttar Pradesh & Madhya Pradesh) and Vapi (Gujarat). Of 3,266 industries identified under 17 categories of highly polluting industries, 2,328 are complying with prescribed norms, 571 are non-complying and 367 have been closed down. In total, India has about 83 polluted clusters as per latest CEPI assessment of 2013.
While there have been demands from across the industries to re-assess CEPI, Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) has been at loggerheads with CPCB since last one year over the assessment process under CEPI. According to GPCB chairperson K U Mistry, there is a wide variation in CPCB and GPCB data collected for the critically polluted clusters such as Vapi in the state. Mistry has been disputing CPCB figures for the past one year, while the Central body stuck to the moratorium.
Environmental activist Rohit Prajapati has, meanwhile, criticised the environment ministry’s decision to lift the moratorium and re-assess CEPI. On December 9, 2013, based on a petition by Prajapati and Farmer Action Group, a Gujarat based farmers’ rights body, the Forest bench of Supreme Court of India issued notices to MoEF&CC, CPCB and all the state pollution control boards to file report on the steps taken to control pollution in these clusters (See ‘SC raps Centre, states for worsening critically polluted industrial clusters’).
Gujarat minister spills the beans
Prajapati has shot off a letter to environment minister Prakash Javadekar. “The [Gujarat] minister making statement about lifting of the moratorium is unconstitutional as MoEF [&CC] is the sole body that can lift the moratorium. If what is stated by Vasava about the lifting of the moratorium of industrial clusters is true, then it clearly indicates that ministry’s decisions might be maneuvered by the industrial lobby and various state governments,” wrote Prajapati to Javadekar. According to Prajapati, Javadekar in a press conference in Ahmedabad last week said his ministry will take two weeks in reviewing the decision for lifting the moratorium on critically polluted clusters, while Vasava went on to announce that the Union ministry has already lifted the moratorium.
The case relating to industrial pollution is still pending in the apex court and a hearing is expected in August.
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