Proposed changes to environmental clearance rules are a mixed bag

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIndustries need to seek a range of approvals from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (“MOEF”) before starting up their operations. In the last few months, the Union government has prepared a detailed outline of proposed amendments to the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 (“EIA notification”), to put in place a new process for granting environmental clearances for various development projects. Kanchi Kohli, a researcher and writer, spoke about these changes.

“It was anticipated that the new government would be bringing in a lot of changes to the earlier laws, but one didn’t know that these changes would be in so soon.” Though she found it “interesting” that the process intends to delegate more powers to the state-level Environment Impact Assessment authorities (“SEIAA”), Ms. Kohli asserted that, “people are wondering whether that would mean…[that] clearance would be less”.

The proposed amendments

The EIA notification had categorised all projects into two categories, A and B. Category A projects were to be appraised by the MoEF while Category B projects were appraised by the SEIAA. Ms. Kohli said about the changes that many projects would now invariably be administered and appraised at the state level.

The proposed amendments want certain sectors like mining and other industrial sectors to be included in the state’s purview. “The most controversial proposal dated the 28th of July”, as she called it, on the insistence of the Ministry of Coal, would permit state authorities to clear projects up to about 16 million tonnes per annum (“MTPA”) one-time capacity. The SEIAA can, upon applying due diligence, even clear projects without without public hearings “which are a really important part of environmental clearance process”.

Miss the mark?

Prakash Javadekar, the Union Minister of State with independent charge of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Prakash Javadekar, the Union Minister of State with independent charge of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

The other significant change Kohli mentions is the new system of online submission of applications, which has been put in place by the MOEF for both the environmental clearance applications as well as for forest clearance related applications under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. She remained skeptical about “this new system” as it “is yet to be tested” and it has been debated whether actual verification can take place through an online system as it is aimed at bringing “efficiency in the system”.

“You know, looking at the documents it doesn’t seem like the efficiency is mostly at the level of the bureaucracy and authorities”. On the other hand, the “core issues” where the impact of projects are really felt, were not part of this efficient system.” The amendments have missed their mark because they did not take into account issues of what really plays out when approvals are granted and which is where most of the conflicts around clearances are located today.

Another controversy caused by the proposed amendments, according to Kohli, is regarding the role of the National Green Tribunal (“Tribunal”). There has always been controversy between the MOEF and the Tribunal and the MOEF has even been summoned before the Tribunal. But, for the lack of information available right now, Ms. Kohli referred to news reports “which indicate that the powers of the Green Tribunal are likely to be clipped from becoming an administrative tribunal from a judicial tribunal.” She said that this issue was likely to emerge more clearly only in the next few months as “it is going to be debated publicly as well as in parliament itself”.

Ms. Kohli concluded that the proposed amendments were “a mixed bag of changes” with a few positive inclusions and some delegation of powers to the state governments and some reduction of public participation in certain cases. While she is not sure how it will really play out on the ground, she is firm in her belief that a “speedier, faster, more efficient system” will not necessarily address the problems of the clearance processes.


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