Yes, Money grows on trees

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Uzma Mohsin

IT’S A handout, not a bailout. In a move that would result in thousands of crores in savings for the real estate industry, the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MEF) has proposed diluting amendments to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2006. If passed, the proposed amendments will exempt many commercial projects from having to assess and disclose their negative environmental impacts, or seek public consent. The original EIA notification, issued in 1994, legitimised the right of communities to information about the impacts of projects in their locality and participate in environmental decision-making. Ironically, as the nation readies to engage in the big event of democracy, the political parties in power threaten to reduce public participation in environmental decision-making to a total farce.

Coming together as the Campaign for Environmental Justice-India (CEJI), more than 500 environmentalists, social activists and community groups have written to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Environment, urging them to suspend notification of the amendments. “This proposed amendment amounts to your government taking advantage of its position to harness much needed resources for elections by offering such astounding and clearly illegal concessions that attack the very edifice of environmental regulation in India,” CEJI wrote.

One of the reasons offered for granting such sweeping concessions is that the ministry failed to anticipate the inability of several state governments to create statutory agencies, such as the State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities, since the enactment of the EIA notification, 2006. Indeed, CEJI had warned the ministry even before the 2006 notification was issued that no budgetary allocation had been made to state governments to set up the state-level bodies.

Environmentalists allege that the MEF is firmly in the grips of corporate lobbyists, and that the new amendments are merely to seek financial favours from them. Between 2003 and 2007, the Congress party received Rs 52 crores in declared contributions, as per Election Commission of India records. Of this, 75 percent, or Rs 39 crores, came from companies and organisations that would benefit from any relaxation of environmental regulation. Mining companies doled out Rs 1.5 crores to Congress. The builder lobby contributed Rs 2.4 crores. The Tata Group handed over Rs 17 crores, followed closely by other corporate majors like Videocon, Ranbaxy, Lupin, L&T, Jindal Steel, ITC, Mahindra & Mahindra and GMR. Many hedged their bets funding the BJP too.

One of the key concessions extended to industry through the amendments is an exemption from environmental due diligence for modernisation and expansion of projects based on self-certification. Proponents merely have to state that there will be no increase in pollution due to the expansion activities. “Only certain projects, like manufacturing and mining, will have significant impacts that can be evaluated based on pollution parameters,” says Kanchi Kohli of Delhi-based Kalpvriksh. “Expansions, such as of highways, airports and other infrastructure projects, will have massive environmental impacts due to land use and topographical changes. But because these would pass the pollution parameter, approval is easy,” explains Kohli.

Commercial projects will be exempted from disclosing their negative environmental impacts or seeking public consent

Given the poor compliance with environmental laws by industries, the trust placed in selfcertification would seem misplaced. Tamil Nadu, for instance, is considered among the better governed states. Even here, in just two districts more than 2,000 highly polluting industrial establishments have no license to operate despite which the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board has not initiated action against a single violator.

The construction and real estate sector, with their ability to drastically alter land-use, has also landed a bonanza. The minimum bar for construction sector projects to get state-level clearance has now been raised from 20,000 to 50,000 square metres. A 50,000 square metre building coming up in the middle of a city, along a water body or a forested area will not have to seek approval of local communities or the state. Where the 2006 notification regulates townships larger than 50 hectares, the amendments propose to allow townships with a sprawl of up to 100 hectares exemption from due diligence.

FOR COAL mining leases, the threshold for central environmental clearance has been increased from 50 to 150 hectares. Besides being a significant contributor to global warming, coal mining causes environmental degradation and deforestation. “More than 80 square km of land is destroyed every year because of coal mining reducing forest cover from 65 to 0.05 percent, says Dr Nitish Priyadarshi, a geologist and lecturer in Ranchi University. “The proposed amendments weaken the already emasculated EIA Notification, 2006, which was the first major step in dismantling environmental regulation to expedite approval of investments,” says Leo Saldanha of Bengaluru-based Environment Support Group. Indeed, at least two committees on investment had identified public consultation as an impediment to investments. Re-issuing the EIA Notification with investments rather than environment as the overriding concern may have yielded good results for investors. From 1986 to 2006, the Ministry cleared 4,016 projects – roughly 16 a month. But in the two-year period from September 2006 to August 2008, they cleared 2,019 projects, averaging 84 projects a month, or 4 projects per working day. The environment as a whole, though, has paid the price.

From September 2006 to August 2008, the Ministry of Environment cleared 2,019 projects, averaging four projects per working day

“These amendments run counter to the preamble of the Environment Protection Act. If they are released before the elections, they will also constitute a major shift in policy and violate the Model Code of Conduct,” Saldanha says. But sources in the ministry say the notification will wait. “The possibilities of the notification being issued before the elections are very small,” says Dr Nalini Bhat, advisor to the MEF. As per law, the government has 360 days to issue the final notification after going through a process of consulting all stakeholders.

The promise of stakeholder consultations cuts no ice with public interest groups. In the lead-up to the publication of the draft EIA notification, 2006, the ministry had several rounds of face-to-face consultations with various industry organisations. No such meeting was held to consult civil society organisations, or representatives of local bodies. In fact, on 26 April, 2006, well after the 60 day draft comments period was over, the PMO directly intervened and directed the ministry to complete consultations with major industry associations.

According to CEJI, nothing short of an Act of parliament will sanctify environmental assessment and public participation in environmental decision-making. “EIAs and public participation are too important to be left to the whims of bureaucrats and the ruling parties,” Saldanha says.

(Jayaraman writes on corporatisation of the environment and lives in Chennai)

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