Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Environmental clearance: Seeking "additional information" will delay projects, Centre to expert committees

By Our Representative
In a fresh concession to corporate sector developers across India, a new office memorandum, one the many in a series issues by the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change, has told Indian and state environmental authorities not to seek any additional information before providing environmental clearance. The memorandum states, “it has been brought to its notice” that Expert Appraisal Committees (EACs, Central authorities, giving environmental clearance to bigger projects) and State Expert Appraisal Committees (SEACs, giving environmental nod to smaller projects) have been seeking “additional studies which do not form a part of terms of reference”, adding, the authorities should stop the practice.
Pointing out that this “delays the whole process and is against the spirit of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification (2006)”, the memorandum says, EACs and SEACs should address “all issues” at the primary Scoping Clearance stage itself, basing themselves on "information submitted by the project proponent". In fact, it insists, the meeting of project proponents with EACs should ensure that “no fresh issues are raised later”, and that additional information/ additional studies are asked for only in extreme, “inevitable” cases.
The title of the memorandum itself suggests what the Centre wants -- "Seeking additional studies by EACs/ SEACs during appraisal of project beyond the Terms of Reference (ToRs) prescribed under EIA Notification 2006."  Taking strong exception to the approach, two senior environmentalists of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), Parineeta Dandekar and Himanshu Thakkar, have said in a recent article that it as yet another “pro-industry and anti-environment” order, adding, “Drop by drop, such orders and circulars are making it impossible to rely on the original environmental acts and notifications.”
Suggesting that the new memorandum appears to have been “brought out due to pressure from project-related ministries and industrial lobby”, SANDRP has said, even now “EACs and SEACs were asking for additional studies in very rare cases”. In fact, “EACs, like the one on river valley and hydropower projects, have a clearance record of 100 per cent and rarely ask for additional studies.” Given this factor, they wonder, “So what was the need for this specific memorandum?”
Qualifying it as a “regressive step”, SANRDP says, “In reality, the very need for asking such additional studies or information is due to severely compromised information provided by the proponents themselves at the Scoping Clearance stage. Looking at the environmental clearance process, it seems hiding information, providing false information, misleading the EAC and even committing blatant violations has become the norm rather than an exception.”
It adds, “In very rare cases, when this is exposed before EAC, they have asked for additional studies -- instead of taking any strong action, for example rejecting the application or postponing decision till the studies are done, as per the law and prudent decision making norms.” In fact, the memorandum “effectively” states that EACs should “process applications based on any shoddy information they receive and should close their eyes even when critical issues surface later in the process”.
The environmentalists say, “Rather than passing such memorandums, the ministry needs to ensure that all the steps of EC process are complied with. That’s not the case today and that’s a more pressing problem than additional studies. It is this non-compliance that is damaging the spirit of EIA Notification 2006 about which the Ministry seems to be least concerned. There is no need for any additional memorandums to fix these issues, only real concern for spirit of EIA Notification and other related laws.“
According to them, “By ordering that no additional information should be sought after TOR stage, the ministry is deriding the importance of public hearing which take place as a part of the EIA study, after TORs are granted. By discouraging additional studies, it is suggesting that even public consultations are immaterial. No more studies, after TOR please!” They qualify it as “an insult of the public consultation process which should form the heart of appraisal and assessment process”.

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