By Kanchi Kohli & Manju Menon
Members, Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group
THE MINISTRY of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has admitted it does not have the capacity to grant environmental approvals and monitor them thereafter. There’s a proposal to hand over this function to a new entity: the National Environment Assessment and Monitoring Authority (NEAMA), which the MoEF claims will be a body of scientific rigour.
The grant of clearances under the Environment Impact Assessment notification, 2006, is an important requirement for industrial and infrastructure projects. It requires carrying out impact assessments, public consultation and going through an expert appraisal. Over the years, its implementation has been marred by controversies related to facilitating approvals rather than upholding green concerns. There have also been demands for a review of the regulation so that it can plug the gaps at hand.
While that has not happened, the PM had committed to setting up a National Environment Protection Authority (NEPA) in August 2009. This was further fostered three months later when a press release of the US Senate and the PMO stated that the US Environment Protection Authority will help India set up the NEPA as part of the larger green partnership. The MoEF put out NEPA discussion papers on 25 May 2010. Six months later, the NEAMA was proposed on 26 November.
Even though the NEAMA note acknowledges that rapid industrialisation, infrastructure development and population growth has led to immense pressure on the environment, it yet again stops short of addressing the core reasons of regulatory infirmities. The note locates the solution within the ambit of institutional reform. Similar efforts in the past have not been able to address issues related to biases in assessments, lack of monitoring and compliance and conflicts during final appraisal. The constant increase in the number and faulty process of clearances has continued to put ecological landscapes and people’s livelihoods under threat.
Even though the MoEF continues to claim that the NEAMA is autonomous, the MoEF indicates that the new institution will remain intricately linked with the ministry for jurisdiction, mandate, funding and reporting. The MoEF will grant the final clearances, defeating the need for an independent regulator. The premise on conditional clearances is also problematic.
Quoting minister Jairam Ramesh, the note states that conditions levied at the time of clearance should be objective, measurable, fair and consistent, and should not impose inordinate costs on the developers. This framework turns a blind eye to the several instances when conditions are almost forced out of appraisal bodies and approvals are granted with as many as 121 conditions. When implemented after approval, the findings render themselves to fait accompli situations, as the project is already built or halfway there.
The manner in which ‘conflict of interest’ is addressed is limiting. It fails to visit instances of conflict that arise when expert appraisal committee members have had direct stake in promoting a specific project. The NEAMA note presents no way out of this scenario.
There remains little confidence that the NEAMA will be able to break out of the legacy of faulty regulation and implementation. Instead of acknowledging that this structure is flawed, the MoEF continues to hail it, saying it’s better than the previous avatar. It is not surprising then that revamp of the environment clearance process remains low on the list of priorities.