The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has asked the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF & CC) to clarify its position on the need for prior environment clearance for inland waterway projects, including the marquee Jal Marg Vikas Project (JMVP) along river Ganga on National Waterway 1 between Haldia and Allahabad.

The principal bench of the NGT gave the Ministry time till January 31 to submit its opinion on the issue in an order on November 1 that disposed of a petition brought by Bharat Jhunjhunwala and others against Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) and others.

The NGT observed that projects of inland waterways are, as on date, not included in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006.

“(The number of ) such projects may increase in the coming days and MoEF & CC has been directed to look into the issue whether environmental clearance is required and whether the EIA is to be done in such projects in the future,” the Shipping Ministry wrote in an internal document, quoting the NGT order.

World Bank loan

On January 3, 2018, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) approved the JMVP costing ₹5,369.18 crore, funded mainly through a $375-million loan from the World Bank, after the MoEF & CC backed off from its earlier stand that maintenance dredging in rivers required prior environment clearance. The project seeks to improve the navigability of the waterway for ships of 2,000 dead weight tonnes.

The NGT order has lobbed the ball back into the MoEF & CC’s court whose stand is by now clear, forcing critics to wonder whether anything worthwhile would come of the case that took three years to be decided.

‘Disappointing order’

“The NGT order is disappointing because if it wanted to ask the Ministry to make clear its stand on the issue, it could have done so right at the beginning. Three years have been lost,” said Shripad Dharmadhikary at Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, an advocacy group.

He said waterway projects required environmental clearance because activities such as dredging, construction of terminals and jetties lead to “huge intervention in the rivers and thereby the environment.”

The World Bank’s decision to sanction a $375-million loan is also seen as going against one of its many operational policies for the JMVP. The World Bank’s operational policy on environment and social assessment categorise projects into Category A, B and C on the basis of the nature and extent of the impact expected from the project.

The JMVP is classified as Category A (maximum impact) by the World Bank, according to documents reviewed by BusinessLine . The World Bank did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment on why it overlooked the environment clearance process while clearing the loan.

EIA reports

The Shipping Ministry has taken the stand that the Environment Protection Act, 1986 and the EIA Notification, 2006 are not applicable to the JMVP. The EIA Notification, 2006, does not classify terminals/jetties/floating terminals on river or dredging in the river as a project requiring environmental clearance, it said.

To be on the safer side, the IWAI has prepared EIA reports on the JMVP with the help of external experts.