In the last two years Union minister of state for environment, forests and climate Prakash Javadekar has undertaken several measures balancing the twin objectives of environmental sustainability and development. He put in place a mechanism for faster and transparent environmental clearance regime for industrial projects. Javadekar spoke to Sandip Das on a range of issues relating to the need to protect the environment as well as ensuring economic growth.
Since you took over about two years ago, what key measures have been taken for ensuring faster and transparent environmental clearance process for industrial projects?
In the last two years, we have made environmental clearance certification process for the industries more transparent and less time-consuming. The average time taken for granting environmental, forest and other clearances have been reduced to around 190 days from an average of 600 days during the UPA regime. This has unlocked investment worth a few lakh crore. However, we have not diluted the norms; in fact, we have made them more stringent for many sectors. Now, application for environmental clearances is made through an online process which is open to public scrutiny.
During the previous UPA II regime, there was talk about ‘Go and No-Go’ forest areas as far as allowing mining was concern. What are your ministry’s views on the issue?
We are at present against this concept of ‘Go or No-Go’ kind of classification of forest areas that the previous UPA government had attempted to introduce. We are still talking to various stakeholders on this.
Due to compliance of stricter pollution norms, what is the impact on the ground?
According to the CPCB, in the last two years, industrial pollution because of effluent discharge has come down by about 30%. However, there are other factors. Issues such as solid waste management, sewage treatment, vehicular pollution and burning of wastes impact the overall environment to a great extent. We are working closely with the ministry of water resources on cleaning up Ganga and other rivers. For curbing vehicular pollution, Bharat-VI standards will be implemented from 2020 and not 2024 as envisaged. This will improve the quality of diesel and petrol sold in the market and a major chunk of vehicular pollution will go and with all the new waste management rules, there will be less dust. Besides, we have identified 20 sectors for ensuring strict compliance of pollution norms. We are also focusing on containing pollution and dealing with the problem of increasing volume of solid waste.
A huge sum of money has been accumulated as compensation for diversion of forest land for industrial purpose under the ad hoc Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). How do you plan to use CAMPA fund for increasing forest cover?
During the UPA rule, more than 36,000 hectare of forest land was diverted for industrial purpose while in the last two years, only 121 hectare has been diverted. Besides, the Lok Sabha has already passed the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2015, that seeks to establish setting up of a National Compensatory Afforestation Fund and also a State Compensatory Afforestation Fund. I am confident that the Rajya Sabha will pass the Bill in the forthcoming Parliament session. Following the passage of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha, the ad hoc regime for handling CAMPA, estimated to be around `42,000 crore accumulated over the years, would be given to states for taking up afforestation work in a phased manner.
What other steps have been taken for increasing the forest cover across the country?
We are looking at more linear projects such as highways, rivers and wastelands for increasing the forest cover through tree plantations. This will allow us to have tree cover on both sides of the highways without stating them as forest area. This will allow the private sector to grow and maintain trees without having to deal with laws concerning forest areas. The technical people from various ministries would be working on chalking out a framework for creating more tree cover.
Are you planning to strengthen the existing penalties under the Environment Protection Act (EPA)?
We have to create a mechanism where we increase the penalties. Offences under the EPA are punishable by a fine of up to `1 lakh, imprisonment up to five years, or both. We need to have a new ceiling of fines under EPA for making it a deterrent.
Your ministry had last year notified the revised standards for coal-based thermal power plants by making it more stringent and the power companies need to spend a huge amount of money to adhere to such standards?
The coal-based power companies have represented their concerns on following such stringent standards. We have held several meetings with them and we have called for technical inputs on this. We are holding a meeting this week with coal-based power producers to find a way out. We will find a realistic middle path on this.
A committed headed by former Cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian has suggested changes or overhaul of the existing laws. What would be your next step for implementation of these recommendations?
We are still examining the recommendations of the Subramanian committee and we are also getting inputs from other sources or stakeholders.