THE INTERVENTION of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to end the stand-off between the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the National Highways Authority of India failed to resolve the fundamental ambiguities of our green clearance process. While it did away with the impractical requirement of obtaining the prior approval of gram sabhas for roads or power lines, the move to delink green clearances — environment from forest — will only allow projects to be cleared as fait accompli.
Not all guidelines issued by the MoEF are legally sound. When former environment minister Jairam Ramesh made prior approval of gram sabhas mandatory for project clearance in July-August 2009, he probably overlooked the limitations of the Forest Rights Act (FRA). No right, including the fundamental ones, is absolute. Even after recognition, forest rights are not above public or national interest. But there is no mechanism in the Act to deal with such scenarios that are open to manipulation.
So when conservationists demand that the FRA be bypassed in the interest of wildlife in critical areas, we cannot deny the project proponents the same bandwidth. But the real problem with gram sabha approval for linear projects is that roads and powerlines pass through hundreds of villages but individual opinion of each can decide their fate. However, the new idea of seeking state-level approvals, as suggested by the PMO, may not adequately address local concerns. Instead, we need public consultations at the district level.
On the other hand, the very idea of delinking green clearances is absurd. A linear project needs environment clearance for its entire length and forest (and wildlife) clearance only for the stretches that pass through forested (and notified wildlife) areas. Right now, no work can begin till both clearances are in place because the pressure on the ministry to issue forest clearance becomes enormous once a project invests huge amounts in its non-forest segments.
While environment clearance is granted by either state or Central authorities, depending on the project, both the state and Centre decide on a forest clearance. So, even projects that do not go to the Centre for environment clearances require a Central nod for forest clearances. Delinking the two compromises these checks and balances. It also sends the wrong signal that every consideration — from political to financial — can supersede ecological concerns while conceiving a project.
But green clearances should not be taken for granted. If a project resists an alternative alignment beneficial to forests and wildlife just because it will escalate costs, it cannot complain that delay in clearances is having the same effect. And there are areas — India’s few remaining natural systems — where no creation or expansion of linear or other projects can be allowed because none is needed. Otherwise, the state can junk the pretension of having green laws and environmental concerns.
The stand-off between growth and green is necessary because no interest should override the other. But a balance can be struck only if India moves towards a singlewindow, time-bound mechanism for all green clearances.
There are several ecological concerns — environment, forest, wildlife, rivers, groundwater, wasteland, marine, etc — and each is defined under different and multiple laws. To cut the clutter, we need a nodal green authority that can tell a project proponent, once the required data is furnished and fees for inspections paid, if a project is feasible or the modifications it may require. Once a final proposal is submitted, a single green clearance should be issued or denied within 3-6 months.
For that to happen, we need to know what we have where on ground, decide our priorities and streamline the laws. In spite of setting up Land Use Boards in every state during the 1970s and ’80s, India still does not have a national land use policy. The PMO could begin there.