Opinion

Environmental clearances: Need for a fresh look

N.R. KRISHNAN | Updated on March 18, 2013

Ecological hotspots can be protected without compromising development. — Murali Kumar K

Jettisoning projects at the slightest sign of dissent is not the solution.



The Prime Minister has been emphasising speedy clearances for projects in the infrastructure and mining sectors. His main concern centred around delays by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) in granting clearances.

Appeals to speed up the clearance process were made before, but went largely unheeded. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had stepped in with a suggestion to set up a high-level clearance body for projects of national importance, but the move was met with stiff resistance from the MOEF.

The Ministry has come out with statistics on clearances in its support, but figures do not tell the full story. A few big-ticket projects languishing for want of clearance nullify the impact of clearances to a host of smaller outlays.

The present clearance process with its sequential hurdles either forces a project proponent to give up the venture, as was reportedly the case with major road projects of late, or burdens the project with time and cost overruns.

MINDSET ISSUE

The mindset underlying the clearance process seems to be two-fold. One, all projects deserve the same degree of examination; the other being, following the “Precautionary Principle”, it is better to err on the safe side and withhold clearance.

It’s time the above mindset changes in the interests of both the economy which it affects and the environment it seeks to protect. Assessment of the environmental impact of large development projects has a fairly long history in this country. The origins of such assessments can be traced to the Third Five Year Plan document, which pointed to the necessity of environment and development going hand in hand. The country was witnessing some of the adverse environmental impacts of economic development, such as loss of valuable top soil, premature silting of reservoirs, pollution of surface and groundwater sources and their depletion, and loss of forest cover and wildlife. Increasing population also had a substantial share in this degradation.

In the 1970s, environmental issues came to be taken seriously all over the globe, leading to the UN Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) in Stockholm in 1972. To attend to long-term national requirements and to undertake the groundwork required for India’s participation in the Conference, the Government of India set up the National Committee on Environmental Planning and Coordination (NCEPC).

INTERDISCIPLINARY APPROACH

A look at the composition of the NCEPC would convince one of its high credentials. Its first Chairman was Pitambar Pant (Head of the Perspective Planning Division of the Planning Commission then) and its membership consisted of leading economists, ecologists, public health experts and forestry specialists.

In later years, it came to be headed by other illustrious men like B.P. Pal (a noted plant geneticist and retired Director of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research), B.D. Nagchaudhury (a physicist and Adviser to the Defence Minister) and M.G.K.Menon.

The methodology adopted by the NCEPC for project appraisal was simple, but involved a substantive enquiry into the environmental setting of the project and its possible adverse impacts. The recommendations of the Committee carried credibility because of its multi-disciplinary composition and the absence of any ideological baggage.

One may recall the role played by the NCEPC in protecting the interests of both environment and development. To quote some examples, the Silent Valley in Kerala and the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu were saved from project construction.

On the other hand, the Tal Vaishet fertiliser project in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra was cleared despite objections from NGOs and owners of nearby mango orchards who feared an adverse impact on their crop.

Later experience showed that the fears were unfounded. Likewise, Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilisers, a public enterprise, was allowed to expand its production facilities in Mumbai.

MINISTERIAL POWER

But in the 1980s the NCEPC fell into decline, a process hastened by the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, and the vast powers conferred on the Department (later to become a Ministry) of Environment and Forests (MOEF) by the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (EPA). A plethora of rules and notifications followed, each one making the clearance process cumbersome and clearances hard to obtain.

The large-scale amendments made to the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification of 1994 in 2006 and the changes made to the Rules governing handling and disposal of hazardous wastes continue to daunt project proponents. To a good extent, the progressive tightening of environmental and forest regulations has been due to judicial pronouncements following Public Interest Litigation (PIL).

Over time, the instrument of PIL has spawned scores of green NGOs and interest groups and generated much media attention. This has had an impact on those charged with the clearance process to be overcautious.

The National Environment Policy, 2006, though dwelling at length on environmental conservation, tends to set economic development as its bête noire. This is probably due to instances of local populations, particularly of forest dwellers, having to make way for mining and similar projects.

It is admitted that overlooking such threats to peoples’ livelihood will only spread social discontent and stoke opposition to all projects.

But the solution does not lie in jettisoning projects at the slightest sign of dissent. Instead, one has to go the extra mile in compensating the affected populations and in incorporating adequate safeguards in the projects to protect the environment and the people. Refusing clearance should be more an exception than the rule.

BALANCED APPROACH

The NCEPC, revived in a form reflecting the times, could be the body entrusted with the preparation of a workable policy document on “Environment and Development”. It could be fashioned on the model of the White House Council on Environmental Quality functioning in the US directly under the President. The Indian version could be under the Prime Minister advising him on matters referred to it by him or taken up by it suo moto for enquiry.

The reason for locating the Committee directly under the Prime Minister is that environment being an all-embracing term, the issues it would deal with would often be the concern of more than one ministry and their examination has necessarily to be undertaken with a perspective larger than what any individual department or ministry may have.

Current notifications and procedures governing environmental and forest clearances could be referred to this body for a fresh look. Other issues that could be referred are, to cite just two, introduction of GM crops looking to food security and approach to Urban Development in the context of the rapid urbanisation taking place in the country.

The revival of the NCEPC need not be at the cost of the MOEF.

While the former would act as a senior policy adviser to the Prime Minister, the latter could continue to look after its present duties and responsibilities.

The author is former Secretary, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Published on March 18, 2013

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