CHENNAI: For the first time ever, India has moved into top-100 of the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business global rankings. But, this jump comes amidst fear of compromised environmental safeguards. 2017 is a tough year for those fighting for environment protection as the Union environment ministry kept changing goalposts and relaxing key norms through amendments and notifications, literally taking the regulatory framework for a ride.
As per the ministry’s submission, between May 26, 2014 and May 31, 2017, a total of 1,424 projects had been granted environment clearance (EC). Over 1,700 forest clearances were accorded and the area diverted was nearly 9,000 hectares. The first controversial notification passed was to amend the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2006, allowing residential projects with a built-up area of up to 1.5 lakh sqm to obtain the EC from local authorities instead of from the Centre and to keep them out of purview of Air and Water Acts.
For Chennai, this would mean the EC can be obtained from Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority and Greater Chennai Corporation. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) stayed the notification a few weeks ago. NGT chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar noted that the notification was only a ploy to circumvent provisions of the EIA in the name of Ease of Doing Business. He also placed profound reliance on International law Principle of Non-regression. This principle should be brought into play because today’s environmental laws are facing several threats such as deregulation and an economic climate that favours development at the expense of protection, he said.
On March 14, the ministry issued another notification providing an opportunity for builders to apply for post facto clearance within six months. In Tamil Nadu, 118 residential projects were found to be without EC. This was the seventh such Office Memorandum issued since 1998. The latest notification was challenged before Madras High Court by R Kothandaraman, president of Pondicherry Environment Protection Association. The Madras HC allowed the ministry to grant post facto clearances after getting an undertaking that this would be a one-time amnesty scheme. As on date, the ministry is processing 2,357 ‘violators’ applications.
Tamil Nadu has been the biggest victim of illegal beach sand mining. As per Coastal Mineral Mapping done by researchers at Institute of Ocean Management in Anna University, Tamil Nadu, arguably has highest concentration of Monazite deposits along its coastline. Monazite contains 8-10 percent thorium, which is a nuclear fuel.
“CRZ rules have been systematically diluted opening coasts for commercial projects, fast-tracking and streamlining of the appraisal process and allowing state governments a bigger role in coastal decision-making. But the resemblance I find in diaspora of amendments is these changes have been made without any public consultation,” said Kanchi Kohli, researcher at Centre for Policy Research and Namati Environmental Justice Programme.
It is not just the weakening of stringent laws. The Centre, it is alleged, is also found diverting environment fund. Ritwik Dutta, founder of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, said the Centre has introduced Clean Energy Cess in 2010 and a National Clean Energy and Environment Fund was generated. By the beginning of this financial year, the government had collected `56,740 crore, which is 20 times the current budget. However, this fund was diverted to compensate the states that stand to lose revenue as a consequence of GST.
Another decision of the ministry that has come under criticism is to relax emission and water consumption standards for thermal power plants. The ministry had notified stringent norms in 2015 and gave the industry two years to reform and they were supposed to come into effect from this month. But, now a five-year extension has been given.Amidst all this, the decision that would rob people from seeking environmental justice was the Centre’s attempt to force its say in the appointment of members to NGT under the Finance Act, 2017.
Timeline of controversy
A look at how certain decisions unfolded
The environment ministry brought out an impugned notification that provided a one-time opportunity to builders to apply for post facto clearance within six months.
Issued draft Marine Coastal Regulation Zone Notification aiming to replace CRZ Notification, 2011. The idea was to open up coastal area for tourism and development projects.
Notified a new set of rules under the head Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 replacing the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010. Environmentalists feel that the new rules watered down priority to wetland conservation under the label of balancing development and environmental concerns.