Order comes at a time when government was trying to project an industry-friendly image; petroleum minister Moily, who now has additional charge of MoEF, had promised to speed up clearances
The UPA government’s recent moves to ease environment clearance processes for development projects may prove futile because of a Supreme Court order, directing the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to appoint within three months a national regulator for appraising projects and regulating their clearances. The ministry has been opposing the appointment of such a regulator.
The apex court had asked MoEF to appoint a national regulator to appraise projects, regulate their clearance, monitor the compliance of the environment clearance conditions and penalise the violators as far ago as 2011. It also asked the ministry to create regional offices of this regulator in each of the states. The court had observed that the environment clearance process carried out by MoEF was flawed and the projects were being cleared on the basis of faulty environment impact assessment reports. Several projects were developed in violation of environment clearance conditions but they managed to obtain clearances as fait accompli, the court had observed. It gave six months time for the ministry to streamline the clearance process.
Court refused to modify 2011 order
The ministry, however, kept sitting on the directives. Later, it told the court that such a “super regulator” was not required as it was already working on strengthening the existing system for the clearances and requested the court to modify its 2011 order. The court, however, did not entertain MoEF’s request. In its order issued on January 6, the court said that its 2011 order was not an observation but a clear-cut direction to the ministry. It reiterated that the current environment clearance process was deficient and needed to be fixed. It asked the ministry to appoint the environment regulator and its offices in the states by March 31.
The court order has come at a time when the UPA government has been trying to push an industry-friendly image in public given that Lok Sabha elections are round the corner. Last month, Jayanthi Natarajan had resigned from the post of the environment minister and petroleum minister Verappa Moily took over the MoEF as additional charge. Media reports speculated that Natarrajan was asked to leave by the prime minister because she was holding up environment clearances for industrial projects. Moily, after taking new job, had promised he would speed up the clearances.
Doing this, however, might not be easy for the government now. “The environment ministry will be more careful now while dealing with project clearances. The independent regulator should make the process more transparent and the ministry more accountable,” said A D N Rao, senior advocate of Supreme Court and amicus curie in the case.
Environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta also hoped that the environment regulator will bring positive changes in the clearance process. “Nothing good is happening in the existing system. Right now a part time committee comprising of retired IAS officials or so-called experts hold a meeting once a month to clear projects. There is no accountability. A full-time regulator with monitoring powers will be bound to have at least some amount of responsibility,” added Dutta.
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