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Top environmentalist attacks NDA government for "dismantling" environmental regulatory system

By Our Representative
Top environmentalist Sunita Narain, director, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, has raised alarm over the Government of India’s being “too busy dismantling the environmental regulatory system in the country”. In an editorial in the top environmental journal, Down to Earth (August 26), Narain has said, reports suggest how over the past two months projects ranging from mining to roads have been cleared on “fast-tracked”. She has said, “While the website of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) has not been updated in August, in the two months till July end, forest clearance was granted to over 92 projects, which will divert some 1,600 hectares of forest.” She adds, “More recently, the National Board for Wildlife has processed many projects located near or in sanctuaries and national parks.”
Narain -- who created a flutter by coming up a Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF)-sponsored report in April 2013 which sharply criticized the Adani Port and SEZ project in Gujarat for violating and not complying with “environmental clearance conditions” – has taken strong exception to the way the “rules are being changed, purportedly to speed up the process” of such clearances. “This is being done in mainly two ways”, she says. First of all, the “MoEF is pushing decision-making to the states in the name of streamlining the process. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification has been amended to delegate powers to clear certain projects to the state-level EIA authorities. This is being done with the full knowledge that the state agencies lack capacity and accountability.”
Pointing out that here “the effort is not to take informed decisions about adverse impacts of projects”, but “to get rid of the clearance system or at least to push it as far away as possible”, Narain says, the second important move is to hold public hearings or diluting gram sabhas’ consent, or even sidetracking it. “For example, small coal mines—classified as producing 8 million tonnes annually—have been allowed to double their capacity without holding the mandatory public hearing”, Narain points out, adding, “Other changes are also in the offing that will further chip away at this condition, which makes it necessary to get the consent of the affected communities or at least to hear and heed their concerns. Clearly, listening to people is not convenient for industry.”
Pointing out that things were not hunky dory even under the previous UPA government, under which “very few (less than 3 per cent) projects were rejected because of environmental concerns; at the most sanction was delayed”, Narain says, the system under the UPA “was designed to obstruct and prevaricate, not to scrutinise and assess environmental damage. The rules were made so convoluted that they became meaningless. The process was so complex that the same project had to be cleared by five to seven agencies, which had no interest in compliance of the conditions they would set.”
“In some ways NDA is doing what the UPA did but without any pretence”, Narain has contended, adding, “The last government killed the environmental clearance system by making it so convoluted that it stopped functioning. It was not interested in reform or strengthening the capacity of its regulatory agencies. The pollution control boards remain understaffed and grossly neglected. The last government was certainly not interested in monitoring the performance of the project to ensure that environmental damage was mitigated. There is no capacity to assess compliance and the laws to enforce compliance are weak. It is a sad reality that previous ministers refused to reform the system because it was easier to control, thus, perpetuate power.”
Asserting that “the need for regulatory oversight cannot be questioned”, Naraian says, “The environmental clearance system is a prerequisite for efficient and sustainable management of natural resources and, more importantly, for ensuring that adverse impacts of economic growth are mitigated and managed. Besides, an effective system helps industry to manage future risks of its investment. It cannot be done away with. What the NDA government is doing now with the changes it is bringing, is to continue to distort and dismember the system, making it even more farcical and ineffective and, consequently, more corrupt. The question is will this change? Will new minister Prakash Javadekar keep perpetuating a bad system or make a real difference for real change?”

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