The second and final day of the Anil Agarwal Dialogue on Green Clearances on Saturday saw the participating civil society activists interacting with senior government officials to evolve the agenda for reforms.
Making a strong pitch for reforms in the process, Tisha Chatterjee, secretary, MoEF, said that the clearance and monitoring system needed to be decentralised - regional committees and local experts needed to be given more powers.
The Anil Agarwal Dialogue was being organised here over two days by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), and it brought to the fore the various issues and concerns related to environmental and forest clearances in India.
The gathering, says CSE, was one of the biggest of its kind with 150 participants from about 100 organisations. Almost every one of these organisations - coming from all over the country -- has been fighting a running battle with industry and official agencies over control of their land and water resources.
In a recent study, CSE had analysed the clearances granted by the Union ministry of environment and forests over the last five years - and found that the country saw more clearances in this period than those planned for even during the 11th and 12th Five Year Plans.
According to CSE's analysis, green clearances are not working for the environment - clearances are being awarded despite destruction of environment and livelihoods of the people. In fact, there seem to be concerted efforts by government and industry to dilute the already existing weak processes.
Said Chandra Bhushan, CSE's deputy director general and the head of its industry and environment programme: "How much truth is there in the contention of industry that environmental and forest clearances are hampering economic development by delaying projects?
"We think there is none - this Dialogue was an effort to take our findings forward. We brought together all the stakeholders in this debate -- the government, the civil society and industry -- on one platform to discuss clearance processes, whether these processes are working, and what they aim to achieve."
Reform is the key, says government
The government seemed to agree that reforms were needed.
Said Tisha Chatterjee: "The baseline surveys, public hearings and the EIA report should not be done by the project proponents themselves. Independent agencies should do these things and the state may sponsor it."
He also indicated that it was necessary to separate the project clearance and monitoring processes. Currently, the regional offices of the ministry do this job, and the secretary felt that this system was unable to assess the situation on the ground.
He added: "Monitoring remains one of the key areas of concern. After the projects are given conditional clearance, it is difficult to assess whether the project developer is following these conditions. In such cases, fixing responsibilities on sub-regional committees and giving them financial powers may help."
Chatterjee also pointed out that the government probably lacked a clearer understanding of carrying capacity of the environment: "Right now, we think that if the ambient standards of five-six major pollutants are achieved, the carrying capacity will not be disturbed. The receptors are not taken into account. Of 168 parameters, only eight are being examined in the current environment clearance process."
The ministry was also of the opinion that EIA consultants needed to be well qualified, and their accreditation by the Quality Council of India was important. The ministry claimed that it has already initiated a system of fixing responsibility on the consultants and project proponents.
According to the NGOs, the consent of the people is a 'must' before granting clearances - and therefore, the public hearing process is extremely crucial. The process, as it stands now, is a mere eyewash and a formality that actually excludes people as stakeholders.
The public hearing and its report must become a part of the decision making process; it should be democratised, and the people's verdict should be final, it said.
Police or state interference should not be there, NGOs said.
The mechanism should be developed to prepare independent EIA reports, they said.
EIA consultants found to be preparing fraudulent EIA reports must get exemplary punishment, NGOs said, adding that deaccreditation is not sufficient.
According to the NGOs, the Environmental Clearance Appraisal Committee (EAC) should be reformed - it should have the required expertise, and the process must be completely transparent. Affected communities must be invited as well.
Cumulative impact assessment must become the basic clearance mechanism and must be given legal force, they said.
Post-project monitoring is essential, according to them.
Reforms are needed in the forest clearance process and this cannot remain a monopoly of the forest department, the NGOs said.