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Unified environmental approval to infrastructure projects from next year

The Union environment ministry will next year have a unified portal for clearances–wildlife, forest, and coastal regulation zone–for infrastructural projects to ensure ease of doing business, officials aware of the matter said. Three independent panels of the ministry currently consider these clearances separately.

Union environment secretary RP Gupta said a form for all clearances will be available and applicants need to submit uniform information based on which the panels will assess the environmental impact of projects.

“Our approvals should not be a hindrance to any infrastructure or development project. It should be approved quickly or disapproved at the earliest. This is part of the reforms we are bringing in for ease of doing business. The portal will be up by mid next year and will be of great benefit to us and to project proponents.”

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Gupta said a policy was being drafted to ensure monitoring of projects, which have been granted clearances.

The ministry last month issued guidelines to speed up environmental clearances. In an office memorandum (OM), the ministry said all meetings to consider the clearances should be held at least twice a month to cut down approval time. The acceptance process for an application should be limited to just checking whether relevant documents have been submitted and terms of reference covered, said the OM, a copy of which HT has seen. It said the expert appraisal committee (EAC) should consider all projects placed on the agenda even as project representatives are absent. Only if project representatives do not attend the meetings for over six months, the EAC member secretary can write to the environment ministry for the status on the ground.

This is among several reforms the ministry has introduced this year to the environmental governance processes. Many of them were brought in to counter the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy, officials said.

Etalin Hydropower Project of 3097 MW involving the clearing of rainforests in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley and renovation and expansion of the Parliament building were among the big-ticket and environmentally contentious projects cleared this year.

The Centre also launched the auction of 41 mines for commercial mining in June. Several of them are located in biodiversity-rich forest areas in central India, including a few in one of the largest contiguous stretches of dense forest in Central India called Hasdeo Arand spanning 1,70,000 ha. The coal ministry issued a notice about its plans to acquire 1760 ha of land in Chhattisgarh’s Surguja for mining. As much as 98% of the land (1742.15 ha) spans protected forests, according to the ministry’s notice published in a Raipur newspaper on October 15.

Coal transportation

The ministry also allowed thermal plants to change their source of coal irrespective of their ash content or mode of transportation. This means that coal will be allowed to be transported by trucks covered with tarpaulin sheets even if the source of the raw material is located a long-distance away. The OM to this effect was issued on November 11.

Compensatory plantations

The central projects being executed by state agencies will be allowed to take up compensatory afforestation in degraded forest land instead of non-forest land. Increasingly, acquiring large stretches of non-forest land is posing a problem for projects required to conduct compensatory afforestation against diversion of forest land. With this relaxation, compensatory afforestation for large central projects like Chaar Dham road in Uttarakhand or 22 green expressways (7,500 km) that the Union road transport and highways ministry plans to execute may be exempted from taking up plantations on non-forest land.

Public hearings

On January 16, offshore and onshore oil and gas exploration were exempted from detailed impact assessments and public hearings. Environmental and legal experts have questioned the change following the oil spill and fire at a well in Assam’s Baghjan because Oil India Limited had been exempted from holding public hearings before carrying out fresh oil explorations. Exploration of hydrocarbons has also been made cheaper and easier. Mining companies now have to pay a fee as per the forest land affected by each borehole and not according to the total forest area leased out for exploration.

Boost to mining

Leases of around 40 mines expired on March 31 after they completed 50 years of operations. To prevent any disruption in mining, the ministry transferred the forest clearance to the new mine lessees for two years, according to guidelines issued to state governments on March 31. In a separate policy decision, the ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee recommended that the validity of forest clearances be extended for 20 years for some government-owned mines. This extension of environmental approvals to mines that are being granted fresh leases assumes a fait accompli of projects, say environmental experts.

EIA 2020

The ministry received over 1.7 million objections, comments, and suggestions to the draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020. The notification has faced widespread opposition because it has a detailed protocol for appraisal of projects that had started operating without approval. This means that projects that have violated norms can be regularised based on fresh appraisal and asked to furnish a bank guarantee.

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