Secretary, Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Rameshwar Prasad Gupta speaks with Esha Roy about the rationale behind the EIA draft 2020 notification, and says it streamlines processes for ease of doing business while increasing compliance monitoring and addressing violations. Excerpts from the interview:
What was the rationale behind the EIA draft for 2020 when it was being formulated. What were the key points being looked at?
The last EIA notification was 14 years ago. A lot has changed since. In the 2006 notification itself there have been some 45-odd amendments and 200 office memorandums issued since. The idea was to consolidate all this so that the people would not have to search for regulations.
The issue is not the number of industries: industries will grow as the country continues to develop, this is inevitable if the country wants to grow. The issue was to ensure that while industries continue to grow, they must be in keeping with environmental norms – to create a balance between development and environment. I personally don’t think the two are in conflict.
State Environment Impact Assessment authorities were set up in 2006, (and) have grown in experience and expertise since. We wanted them to take more responsibility instead of all projects coming to the Centre. The state authorities were always appointed by the Centre; the states simply proposed candidates. That has not changed since 2006. The only thing we have said is that names of new members need to be sent to us 45 days before the end of term.
If not, we will appoint (them), because we don’t want the SEIAAs to be vacant or non-functional. The vacuum will just increase the burden on the Centre.
How will compliance-monitoring be ensured, especially in the light of recent incidents such as the LG Polymers accident in Visakhapatnam?
There needs to be infrastructure and industrial development for employment generation. We started manipulating environment when we started growing crops, so that is not an argument that holds. Yes, we have reduced the clearance process down to 150 days – it would take six-seven years before. How is that efficient and how do we compete internationally with the cost and time overrun that this leads to?
A longer time taken for clearance does not mean that environmental regulations are being enforced, nor does expeditious clearance mean lax environmental norms. On the contrary, longer periods lead to corrupt practices.
Our focus is now on monitoring…. In the ministry we are focusing on a multi-pronged approach. I accept that in India, monitoring has been very weak; so this will be our main focus now. Apart from self-reporting by the proponent, we will hold the industrial association responsible for violations, we will strengthen existing enforcement agencies like the CPCB [Central Pollution Control Board] and SPCBs [state PCBs] and will soon begin a system of environmental audits — environmental auditors registered with the ministry who will carry out independent audits of projects.
One of the biggest criticisms of EIA has been the ex-post-facto regularisation of violations.
Prior clearance is the norm in setting up industries. We have detailed penalties for not having acquired environmental clearances, including EIA’s, which is according to law and proportionate to the offense. Chori ke liye phaansi ki sazaa toh nahi de sekte (after all, we cannot sentence a person to hanging for a theft). There are stringent provisions, including possible imprisonment.
Also, there is no regularisation of violation. The penalty which is being charged is for the period that the industry has functioned without a clearance –- the penalty is for not having obtained the clearance, and not for pollution. If the industry is found to be polluting, it will be shut down. The clearance that will be given will be from the date of the clearance, not post facto.
Besides, the proponent has to put in place a remedial plan for environmental damage he may have caused, and if there is a pollution load then he will have to pay a polluters’ fee which will be decided by courts and which is separate from the violation penalty.
Critics have accused the government of favouring ease of business for corporates in the EIA notification, as opposed to protecting the environment.
What is wrong with that? What is wrong with ease of doing business? Why should we make it difficult to get clearances? Clearances should be expeditious, but of course with proper scrutiny.
Why have you done away with the process of screening, by which states decide which projects should be in the B2 category with stricter norms, or the B1 category with more lenient norms?
We have defined all project categorise in great detail. We realised with states categorising B1 and B2 (that) there was no uniformity. So a project in Karnataka which may be categorised as B1 maybe categorised as B2 in Madhya Pradesh. There was too much discretion being used by states, which was problematic.