Environment ministry on overdrive to streamline norms

Last Updated: Sat, Dec 29, 2012 18:40 hrs

After the government’s nod to a Cabinet committee on investment for fast-tracking projects, the environment ministry is seeing heightened activity.

The ministry, which is trying to shrug off its anti-industry image, has come up with three important memoranda in a month, including one on easier norms for clearances to projects in special economic zones (SEZs) and quick approvals to expand existing mining projects.

A ministry official, however, ruled out diluting of norms. The memoranda merely clarified and streamlined existing regulations, he said.

Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General of Centre for Science and Environment, said, “It’s a mixed bag. In some cases, the ministry has actually streamlined existing procedures, which is a good move. Delegating powers to state level pollution control boards for projects in SEZs is a right move. However, in some cases, there has been dilution of norms.” He added allowing expansion of projects without a public hearing was a clear case of relaxing norms.

Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People feels other ministries are exerting pressure on the environment ministry to grant clearances. “The environment ministry should look at protecting the environment. But recently, the ministry is succumbing under the pressure to grant clearances,” he said.

Earlier this month, Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan had agreed to the formation of a Cabinet committee on investment, after opposing it for weeks.

Mines expansion
In a circular, the ministry had said existing coal mining projects wouldn’t have to apply for fresh clearances if they wanted to expand existing ventures. According to guidelines, no clearances would be required to expand coal mining projects involving one-time production capacity expansion of up to 25 per cent of existing operations. Also, no fresh public hearing would be required for such expansions. The clause of 25 per cent expansion in production is subject to a ceiling of two million tonnes per annum of additional production for the additional output would be transported by road and five million tonnes per annum of additional production if it is proposed the transportation would be through rail.

Highway projects

The ministry had said highway development agencies wouldn’t have to apply separately for mining of soil and earth for such works. The highways ministry or agencies such as the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) can apply for clearances for soil/earth when applying for an environmental clearance.

Green clearances to projects between 1980 and July 2011
  Granted forest clearnce
Closed, returned
or withdrawn
Final In-principle
Number of projects 19,003 3,261 1,769 29,180
Source: Centre for Science and Environment

A recent order issued by the ministry states the environmental clearance process for SEZs would now follow that designed for national industrial and manufacturing zones under the National Manufacturing Policy 2011. Under the new system, the Centre, as well as state governments, would delegate power to state pollution control board officials posted in particular zones to implement environmental laws and regulations.

The ministry has exempted individual units from meeting the public hearing requirement in case the entire SEZ has already carried out the public hearing process.

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