Updated: January 22, 2022 9:35:04 am
The Centre’s decision to rank states according to the speed at which they issue environmental clearances is ill judged and short sighted. It undermines the role of regulatory oversight in environmental protection — recognised in several Supreme Court verdicts as one of the key instruments to ensure the right to life — by incentivising state environment impact assessment authorities (SEIAA) to seek “fewer details” from project developers. There is no denying that clearance procedures are often riddled with red tapism. And that environmental protection must be balanced with developmental priorities. These are complex tasks that require strengthening of institutions and making regulatory procedures foolproof. Experts have rightly pointed out that the ranking exercise will compromise the SEIAAs’ mandate to assess the impact of industrial, real estate and mining schemes on the environment and lead to an unhealthy competition amongst these agencies to swiftly clear projects without due diligence.
In recent times, the MoEF has laid much store on speedy clearances of projects. In a statement issued in December last year, it pointed out that the average time taken to issue environmental clearances had reduced from 150 days to 90 days in the past two years and that the clearance time is as low as 60 days in some sectors. But the ministry has not clarified if this reduction in time has improved the level of scrutiny of projects on critical environmental yardsticks. The MoEF’s self-congratulatory tone about the rate of approval has been rightly criticised because it has coincided with moves to chip away at key environmental regulation. Last year, for instance, it weakened the public hearing provision for Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), extended the deadline for compliance with emission norms for most thermal power plants from 2022 to 2025 and planned to reduce the ecological protection accorded to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It has also diluted the Coastal Zone Notification and proposed to amend the Forest Conservation Act to allow the use of forests for infrastructural projects in areas of “strategic importance”. The new grading system will further weaken the country’s environmental protection regime.
At a time when climate change is driving home the ecological fragility of large parts of India and pollution and water scarcity are taking a serious toll on the well-being of people in cities, towns, and villages, regulatory bodies require enabling policies to perform their tasks with rigour. The grading exercise, instead, reduces them to clearing houses. The Centre must rethink its move.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on January 22, 2022 under the title ‘Rigour, not just speed’.
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