In a new notification, issued on March 14, the Government of India has decided to grant “post-facto” environmental approvals, described by senior environmental researchers, Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon, as suggesting that it is willing to “bend backwards to give a clean chit to units or operations that have been engaged in illegitimate ventures.”
Calling it “a remarkable show of partisan support to projects that have been illegally operating without environmental approvals”, the researchers say, “The document lays out a process by which illegal industrial units, mines, ports or hydro projects can be granted clearance and ‘brought into compliance’ within the next six months.”
Revealing that the units without environmental approval “are not small ones that are ignorant of the law”, the researchers say, the notification would benefit “several large corporations, industrial houses and real estate projects that are in the habit of treating environmental regulations as an unnecessary encumbrance upon them.”
With the CPR-Namati Environment Justice Programme, the researchers cite the Justice M.B. Shah Commission of Inquiry for Illegal Mining of Iron Ore and Manganese, which said that in Odisha, of 192, “94 iron ore and manganese operating mines in the state did not have environment clearances.”
Odisha’s “illegal mines”, they add, operated in full view of the government, causing “a deathly situation of thick dust, accidents during transportation and a general collapse of any civic rights”, and projects operated “without any legally binding stipulations to protect the neighbourhood communities from the harms of pollution.”
As recently as December 2016, the comptroller and auditor general (CAG) noted that 7% of 216 cases were initiated without approvals, the researchers note, adding, “Now, the environment ministry is offering this notification as a way to clean up the mess”, and as a solution “it has offered the violators a back door entry into compliance.”
The notification would help the “defaulting units” of Goa, which led the Supreme Court to order the closure of 218 industrial and mining projects. It would also put a question mark on the National Green Tribunal, which imposed fines on projects such as the Hazira port in Gujarat that started construction prior to clearance.
Under the new notification, the researchers say, the violator will be first assessed by the ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), but the requirement for an environment impact assessment (EIA), the management plan and remedial measures will come into play at a later stage.
“The role of these studies will not be to determine the approval of the project, as is normally the case with EIA procedures, but only to collate information towards planning management, mitigation and compensatory measures”, they point out.
“The violator is also awarded the opportunity to bypass the requirement of a public hearing, which would have been mandatory if it had sought prior environment clearance in accordance with law”, they add.
Comment the researchers, “The government has treated the issue of habitual violators of environment law as a problem akin to tax evasion and has offered a one-time amnesty to such fraudulent and non-complying units.”
“Just as the government mops up funds through such disclosure schemes, here too the amnesty comes at a cost that the government will charge for remediation of the violations and any economic benefits earned from it”, they add.
The researchers insist, “What has been completely left out of the picture is that these violations have caused large-scale public harms and the remedies for these need to come from those who have been affected and whose rights have been abused. This may include the suggestion to close down the violating unit.”