Politricks killing greens: Environment ministry relaxing key norms

Slack approach to setting up a regulatory framework for safeguarding environmental resources affects Tamil Nadu on various levels.

Published: 31st December 2017 08:51 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st December 2017 08:51 AM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purpose.

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

March 14

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.  

March 17

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.

September 26

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.

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