MoEF falters

New draft environmental clearance process full of gaps

By Kushal Pal Singh Yadav
Published: Tuesday 15 November 2005

-- The Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) has finally come out with its much-awaited new environmental clearance (ec) process. The draft environment impact assessment (eia) notification dated September 15, 2005 replaces the existing one, and is open for public comment till November 15, 2005 after which the final process will be notified.

moef has proposed a number of major changes. At the outset, it is clear the primary objective of the new process is to reduce the time taken for a project to acquire environmental clearance. moef has admitted the earlier ec took time and was cumbersome. But is reduction in clearance time at the cost of environmental and social concerns? Sadly, yes. Past experience shows project proponent perceive the eia report as a hurdle. They, and consultants hired by them to prepare the report, presume the document is meant to justify the project and is not an independent exercise to determine the environmental and social viability of a project. Still, moef has left the task of preparing the report (and supplying all project-related data) to a project proponent, and not an independent body.

Also, the manner in which projects are categorised raises questions. (In the new process, the Centre will clear Category a projects while state governments will clear category b projects. There exists an a / b category, and the expert appraisal committee at the Centre will decide who clears such projects.) For instance, a diesel-based power plant more than 50 megawatt (mw) in capacity can be set up only after central clearance; for a coal-based plant, the Centre steps in only if it is more than 500 mw in capacity. Isn't a 50 mw coal-based plant equally or more polluting than an equivalent diesel plant? What is the basis of such categorisation?

Construction projects, too, are problem-riddled. Only projects with a built-up area of more than 1 lakh square metres will require central clearance. Absurd: this clause exempts almost all kinds of construction (including huge shopping malls, office complexes and residential apartments) from central scrutiny. Instead of 'built-up area' being a criterion of environmental soundness, could not 'sewage generated' or 'electricity load installed' been better? Ideally a list of green activities/ industries which do not need to pass through the ec process should be generated; all other activities would require clearance.

Skews in the process The new process entails proponents to fill a form on project details. On this basis, central or state level appraisal committees will formulate the terms of reference (tor) to prepare the eia document. But the kind of information sought is inadequate: information on alternatives, in terms of technology, project type and site -- or global best practices, and how closely a proponent follows it -- is not sought at all.

Secondly, the clause to decide tors leaves a lot of discretion to the appraisal committees vis-a-vis the kind of eia required. There is a legitimate fear that most projects will be required to only do a rapid eia -- weak in terms of data generated -- and so defeating the purpose of obtaining environmental clearance. So, there should be comprehensive guidelines geared to a detailed eia report; all activity/ industry requiring clearance must follow it.

There is more. A clause exists that lets state level appraisal committees decide whether a category b project requires environmental clearance at all. b1 category projects require it; b2 ones don't. This clause is too complicated: why do appraisal committees have so much discretion? This clause should just be done away.

So should clause iv in 'public consultation': it permits the regulatory authority to do away with the public hearing process, if the local conditions are not conducive. How, then, are local people to have a say?

Other major problems include exemption to certain kinds of industries (like sponge iron plants) from the entire ec process if they come up in industrial estates with prior clearance; restricting public participation by defining what kind of people can participate; the composition of appraisal committees -- specifically, that a bureaucrat, and not an environmental expert, heads it and there no representation from social sciences in expert committees.

Re-engineering the ec process should have made it more meaningful. Instead, the proposed reforms weaken the existing process and do not address environmental and social concerns in their entirety.

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