A spate of changes proposed by the Center to ease environment norms has once again raised posers if it is pushing forward large development projects without adequately weighing the ecological costs against benefits and seeking the much necessary public consultation. Over the last week, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has come up with a slew of notifications and office memorandum that environmental experts worry about. One of the draft notifications seeks to extend environmental clearance (EC) for existing and new hydro power, nuclear and mining projects.
For hydro projects, the EC will be valid for 13 years whereas for nuclear projects, it is extended to 15 years. Similarly for mining projects, the government has proposed to extend the EC to 50 years. The MoEFCC cites long gestation periods, geological surprises, land acquisition, forest clearance as well as rehabilitation and resettlement as issues that have driven the decision to extend the EC window. In another such notification, the government wants to do away with public hearing for project expansion up to 40% of the existing capacity. Then there is one where projects in bordering areas would be exempted from EC requirement given the strategic nature of linear infrastructure.
The breakneck pace at which these norms are being relaxed has set the alarm bells ringing. Specialists sense that easing of norms to streamline procedures may come at the cost of critical biodiversity and ecological equilibrium. Doing away with public hearing for mining, roads, built-up areas and ports could compromise the long-term fate of the displaced population without giving them a chance to voice their opinions. Exempting highways from EC in ecologically sensitive areas may cause irreparable changes despite the safeguards.
More importantly, many of these proposals require wider public consultation to understand the entire gamut of issues — environmental, economic and social. With the highly-debated draft Environmental Impact Assessment 2020 notification challenged in court, activists accuse the Center of pushing new norms to go around the bottlenecks. The MoEFCC must not evade uncomfortable questions but rather engage with the stakeholders to bring much-needed clarity.