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Environmental clearance?: Rely on corporate houses' "utmost good faith", Government of India told

By Our Representative
In an important move, the high-powered committee, headed by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian, appointed by the Government of India in order to “review” current environmental laws, has sought to recommend that only those protected areas and forests which have more than 70 per cent canopy would not be disturbed for setting up a project. Taking strong exception to this, environmental activists in a note under circulation says, this is “a problem”, as it means the committee has “excluded wildlife corridors, non-forest habitat types of conservation significance, wetlands, coastal areas and buffer zones.”
Prepared by Indian Community Activists Network (ICAN), the discussion note says, “While it is important to define forest, it is equally important to recognize the value of non-forest natural vegetation and habitats including desert, high mountains and what are otherwise considered wastelands. Our obsession with forests and equating tall forest and high canopy forests as the best wildlife habitat is flawed. This was a good opportunity to highlight the importance and need for conserving all natural habitats.”
The committee, whose executive summary is now available on the net, interestingly, seeks to rely heavily on the corporate sector by introducing the concept of “utmost good faith” while providing environmental clearance to those seeking to set up projects in the environmentally sensitive areas. This, it said, would be done through a “new legislation, to ensure that the applicant for clearance is responsible legally for his statements, but would be severely penalized, as prescribed, for any deliberate falsehood, misrepresentation or suppression of facts.”
This, according to the committee, “would throw the responsibility primarily on the project proponent”, even as significantly reducing “Inspector Raj.” While no suggestions have been offered on what type of strict steps would be taken against the defaulting project proponents, the committee does not stop here. It wants “delinking the project proponent from conservation area obligations after it fulfills the necessary financial commitments.”
The environmentalists' note says, “Delinking of the project proponent from compensatory afforestation once the financial obligations are met is not a good idea. It should be the responsibility of the project proponent to identify and locate the required land and also ensure that it gets afforested, and this should be strongly linked to the validity of the forest and other clearances that are granted to him.”
The committee seeks to recommend a “new project clearance mechanism, based on the single window concept” to “significantly reduce the processing time” with the help of geographical information systems (GIS) reference maps, combined with use of multilayer data captured through satellite imagery.” It says, this would be done for “speedy process of project clearance applications using available technology.”
The new mechanism, according to the committee, would be, apparently, be a recommendatory body – it calls it an “expert body” – National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) at the Centre, and State Environmental Management Authority (SEMA) in states. They would “evaluate” project clearance, using “technology and expertise, in a time-bound manner, providing for single window clearance.” The committee wants the existing Central Pollution Control Board and corresponding State agencies to be “subsumed respectively in NEMA and SEMA.”
At the same time, the committee recommends “fast track” procedure for “linear projects” which provide benefit to community at large, as also for, interestingly, power and mining projects and projects which are identified as are of “national importance.” The environmentalists' note comments, “Improvements in monitoring systems, especially with the use of technology”, does not clarify “if this is for post-clearance monitoring of projects to ensure that they are complying with the conditions that were placed while granting the required approvals.”
The note underlines, “This lack of post-approval monitoring over the life of all projects is currently a major weakness and this should have been emphasized.” Even as welcoming steps like “codifying and unifying laws” if it is aimed to “eliminate contradictions, promote transparency, accountability and efficiency in terms of enabling better protection of the environment and more democratic decision making”, the note objects to base “an approval system on utmost good faith of the corporates/developers”, calling it “being very na├»ve.”
The note also objects to “compensatory afforestation” mechanism, saying it can be best done it is “undertaken in non-forest land”. It says, “Opening up forest land for compensatory afforestation is not a good idea. Ecological restoration should be carried out in forest land and this involves much more than planting trees.” Other objections relate to what the note calls, “apparent attempt to make it easier for entry of pilgrims into protected areas.”

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