NDA’s environmental clearance record not significantly different from UPA’s: CSE analysis

Study says that while the Centre’s performance on environment has not been unsatisfactory, it has not done enough to reduce environmental degradation and pollution

 
By DTE Staff
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

The NDA government has given priority to clearing coal mining and infrastructure projects like roads and highways (Credit: Narendra Modi’s Facebook page)

An assessment of the Narendra Modi government’s one-year record on environmental conservation says that it has not been very different from that of the previous regime.

Conducted by Delhi-based non-profit, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the assessment says, “Contrary to the widespread perception, the NDA government’s record of giving environmental and forest clearances has not been very different from that of its predecessor—the UPA government.”

CSE based its analysis on a review of the NDA government’s decisions taken over the first year of its rule.

On green clearances

According to CSE Director General Sunita Narain, “The analysis shows that there have been no major reforms to improve the green clearance processes for safeguarding the environment and lives and livelihoods of communities —rather, incremental changes have been made to ‘ease the process’ of project clearances.”

This, Narain adds, ‘is not different from the previous UPA government where also there was huge hype about delays in green clearance, but the data showed that projects were being cleared and processes were made so convoluted that they stopped working to protect the environment”.

However, the CSE analysis points out two clearly emerging trends which are of concern. The first is that project clearances are being devolved to state agencies without building capacity or accountability at state-level institutions. The second is that there is an effort to dilute the public hearing process. This is most pronounced in the case of the coal mining sector.

“If these trends continue, they will severely compromise the integrity of the environmental clearance system, especially if nothing is done to improve governance at the state level and to strengthen institutions and oversight,” Chandra Bhushan, CSE’s deputy director general, says.

Stressing that the NDA government’s record has been no worse or no better than that of the UPA, CSE analysts say that the amount of forestland diverted in the first one year of Modi’s rule, in fact, had been the least since 2007.

In the first year of the NDA rule, two sectors stand out in terms of clearances granted—mining and infrastructure. The NDA government has given priority to clearing coal mining and infrastructure projects like roads and highways.

Between June 2014 and April 2015, as many as 103 mining projects and 54 infrastructure projects were granted environmental clearances. This is about 80 per cent of all environment clearances granted during this period, analysts add.

The coal mining sector has received special favours. It has benefitted from a number of concessions—the public hearing provision for expansion projects in coal mining has now been significantly relaxed and coal mining projects have been allowed in critically-polluted areas.

On pollution control and management

CSE points out positive trends in pollution control and management that need to be watched and supported. 

  • Efforts have been made to improve waste management rules. The Modi government has issued the draft waste rules, which are a significant improvement, when compared to what existed before.
  • The ministry of environment and the Central Pollution Control Board are working together to make existing pollution standards more stringent in major polluting industrial sectors. An example is the draft notification on thermal power plants which, when implemented, would reduce pollution significantly.
  • The government is putting in place continuous online pollution monitoring systems in major polluting industries. If this is implemented, it can improve compliance and enforcement of pollution standards.
  • The government has introduced the National Air Quality Index and is in the process of monitoring air quality on real-time basis in several cities. This will help build public awareness about the quality of air and the precautions people need to take for safeguarding their health.

However, there have been some regressive steps as well such as the relaxation in the provision for setting up new projects in critically-polluted areas (CPAs). The moratorium on setting up new projects in eight CPAs was revoked in June 2014 and certain conditions were put to allow new projects to come up, says the assessment.

The older system of identifying CPAs has been kept in abeyance, but so far, no new system has been put in place that can improve the environment in these areas.

On reforms

In 2014, the NDA government set up a committee headed by retired bureaucrat T S R Subramanian to examine existing laws and suggest reforms in environmental governance. This was a timely and important move, but the time given to the committee was short. Result: some of the major recommendations of the committee have been found to be injudicious while the others can be further improved. There is concern that the government might selectively use the recommendations to dilute the green clearance processes. This is what needs to be avoided, says the analysis.

The NDA came to power on the heels of much hype over environmental clearances holding up growth. It was feared that corporate India would get its wish to do away with clearances, or at least to whittle away the system.

In the past year, the government did try to do this by hastily setting up a committee with the apparent mandate of doing away with protection; it even tried to dilute the consent provision of the Forest Rights Act. But as yet this has not happened, according to CSE.

The sum of the NDA government’s actions has really amounted to a selective changing of environmental regulations in the name of streamlining the system. But this has been done without strengthening institutions, particularly at the state level, that can monitor pollution, enforce rules and ensure compliance.

A more difficult agenda remains neglected. In one year, the government has not unveiled any plans to reduce air pollution in cities or to clean the Ganga. In fact, what it has is business as usual. This, says the CSE, “will not give us the change that we need”.
“So, in conclusion, the NDA was not as bad as we feared. But will it become as good as we want? That is what we need to ask and demand,” say Narain and Bhushan.

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