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Exemption for ‘strategic’ highways, mining extensions: How govt’s reshaping environmental clearance

Experts say some of the changes introduced & proposed by environment ministry are similar to those in the draft 2020 EIA notification, which never saw light of day post heavy criticism.

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New Delhi: Earlier this week, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change introduced a spate of changes to the environmental clearance process for development projects, while proposing to exempt others from its purview entirely, sparking concern among environmentalists. 

These changes and proposals came in the form of two notifications and two office memorandums issued between 11 and 12 April. One of the notifications is a draft amendment open to public feedback.

Environmental clearance (EC) is mandatory for 39 types of developmental projects including mining, hydro power and thermal power among others, and the process for clearance is outlined by the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of 2006. 

However, experts ThePrint spoke to were of the view that the Centre’s new rules and proposed changes give project proponents more time and leeway to implement and expand their operations, which could chip away at the integrity of the clearance process. 

They also pointed out that some of these changes are similar to those found in the draft EIA notification of 2020, a document that sought to replace the EIA notification of 2006, but hasn’t yet seen the light of day after the backlash it received. The document had received over 17 lakh comments, suggestions and objections over how it proposed to amend the environment clearance process, which involved drastic changes like granting ex-post facto clearance for certain projects. 

While the Centre has not yet responded to the comments it received on the 2020 draft EIA notification, researchers told ThePrint that the incremental changes made and proposed this week reintroduce some of the ideas the government pursued two years ago.

ThePrint reached a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment over email. This report will be updated if and when they respond.

Also Read: 10-fold rise in intense forest fires in India from 2000 to 2019, study points to climate change

Proposed change: Exempting ‘strategic’ highways

In its draft notification issued on 11 April, the environment ministry proposed to exempt highway projects that would serve India’s strategic interests from the environmental clearance process. 

In the notification, the government said that such projects “are sensitive in nature and in many cases need to be executed on priority keeping in view strategic, defence and security considerations”. 

“In this regard, the ministry deems it necessary to exempt such projects from the requirement of EC,” it added.

The notification further stated that instead, project proponents should comply with a set of standards to safeguard the environment. In August last year, the National Board for Wildlife, which grants wildlife clearance, had also approved the construction of roads in border areas where there are wildlife sanctuaries for their “strategic importance”.

The same notification also proposed that 15 MW thermal power plants, which primarily function on biomass and solid waste, and use up to 15 per cent of petrol, coal or lignite as an auxiliary fuel, should be allowed to increase their capacity to up to 25 MW without the clearance.

“In view of the activity of using the aforesaid fuel mix being eco-friendly, and in order to encourage such activities, the ministry deems it necessary to increase the threshold capacity for such thermal power plants,” said the draft notification. 

It also sought to exempt the expansion of ports for fishermen who use boats with less pollution potential, as well as allow expansion of terminal buildings within airports, provided they do not usurp more land.

This, the government said, “involves only incremental environmental impacts which can be catered by providing for environmental safeguards” built into the project’s Environmental Management Plan.

The draft notification is open to public feedback for 60 days after its date of publishing.

“The draft amendment seeks to create a series of exemptions while suggesting the impacts on the environment will be minimal, but that’s not necessarily true. This idea of highways and roads in border areas being of strategic importance moves away from the requirements under the forest and environment clearance processes.,” Arpitha Kodiveri, post-doctoral researcher at the New York University, School of Law, told ThePrint.

Extended EC validity for hydro, nuclear projects

In another notification issued on 12 April, the ministry extended the validity of environment clearance for nuclear and hydro projects, because their implementation is often delayed “due to various issues such as geological surprises, delay in forest clearance, land acquisition, local issues, rehabilitation and resettlement, etc.”.

The validity of environment clearance for such projects is usually for 10 years. However, according to the new notification, EC for river valley projects will now last 13 years, and 15 years for nuclear projects.

It added that since mining leases are awarded for up to 50 years under the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, EC for these same projects should be “aligned” to this timeline. Typically, mining leases are awarded EC validity of 30 years. The new notification extends this to another 20 years if required. 

“Extending the gestation period for projects after they have been granted environment clearance doesn’t necessarily influence project outcomes, because their operationalisation depends on other approvals, securing finances, and several other conditions. There should be greater focus on understanding economic viability to address why projects are taking so long to be implemented in the first place,” Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher with the Centre for Policy Research, told ThePrint.

“It is ironic that the extension of EC validity is being granted on the basis of geological ‘surprises’, given these are taken into account by the project proponent before the EC is granted,” she added.

In cases where such large projects fall on forest land and require forest clearance — as is the case for several hydro projects — an office memorandum issued on 11 April stated they will also have extended EC validity by up to two years. 

The reason for this, according to the memorandum, is that the implementation of such projects is often delayed because of inability to obtain stage two forest clearance (FC) awarded to projects that successfully comply with the conditions of stage one clearance before the EC validity expires. 

In order to “rationalise” this difference, the government said that the EC validity period “shall be reckoned from the date of grant of stage two FC, or a maximum period of two years, whichever is less”.

“They seem to be using the gestation period to give the project proponents time to deal with other issues, like land acquisition, so they don’t have to go through the EC process again. There also seems to be a subtle indication that if EC has been granted, FC will be granted too,” said Kodiveri.

“Certain changes to the ecosystem could occur during the lifecycle of the project. If we are assuming that the nature of the impact on the environment will be the same over 13 or 15 years, how are we accounting for changes induced by climate change?” she asked.

Increasing production capacity without public hearing

In another office memorandum issued on 11 April, the government introduced a guideline for existing projects seeking to increase their production capacity by up to 50 per cent, allowing them to do so — under certain conditions — without holding another public hearing, which so far was required under the EIA notification 2006. 

Some of these conditions include no additional land acquisition or forest diversion, and no reduction of the surrounding green belt, among others. For existing projects that seek to increase production capacity up to 40 per cent, the public consultation where those affected by the project can raise issues will not have to be repeated. 

Only those projects that seek to increase production capacity between 40 to 50 per cent will have to repeat the public hearing procedure, the memorandum said.

The draft EIA of 2020 also included a similar provision in which existing projects seeking to increase production by up to 50 per cent were given exemptions from the public hearing process.

“The draft EIA notification of 2020 went through a public consultation process, but what’s worrying is that these same ideas are being brought in by office memorandums and through amendments without public notice, limiting the scope of public debate. It makes the environmental clearance process easier for project proponents, but doesn’t adequately consider the long-term impacts on the environment,” Krithika Dinesh, an independent lawyer and researcher who has followed the draft EIA notification, 2020, closely, told ThePrint.

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

Also Read: Govts must act within decade to mitigate extreme climate change impact, says latest IPCC report


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