MoEF seeking to centralise clearance of projects

Updated: Nov 14 2005, 05:30am hrs
The ministry of environment & forests (MoEF) notification modifying the process of environmental clearance for projects has created a flutter among stakeholders. The re-engineering of the process, it is claimed, is for streamlining the environmental impact assessment (EIA) procedure for industrial and other projects.

The notification categorises projects as A, B and A/B on the basis of their pollution potential, rather than their investment limit, as was the case in some projects. Category A will have to seek clearance from the MoEF, while category B projects will be cleared by the State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA), based on the recommendations of the State/Union Territory-level Expert Appraisal Committees (SEACs) to be set up by the Centre in consultation with the states (or, by the states The notification has contradictory statements). As for A/B category projects, the MoEF will decide if they need its clearance or that of the state EIA bodies.

At present, 33 types of projects need MoEF clearance. Following the 1994 notification, projects have to submit EIA reports prepared by the proponents, generally through consultants. Project proponents have to obtain a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the concerned State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) and other authorities. Based on the NOC, the EIA report and the public hearing, the proposals are considered by the environmental appraisal committees (EACs) constituted by the MoEF.

The project proponents then make their presentations and answer queries raised by the EACs. The EACs also visit project sites. EACs recommendations are then vetted by the MoEF, including by the minister before clearance, usually with conditions. There are instances of clearance being refused.

Prima facie, the procedure seems fool-proof, but it suffers from numerous loopholes. The high-level Govindarajan committee which examined the existing procedures for project clearance had observed that the process is unduly time consuming. It said environmental clearance should be decentralised and only projects costing over Rs 100 crore should be subject to MoEF clearance. But the MoEF notification seeks to centralise most of the work.

The notification raises several questions and I would like to flag the following issues for attention:

r It will make the process more cumbersome because of the various stages of environmental clearance, besides public consultations;

r The rationale for including certain types of projects in A or B category and the threshold limits, as proposed, are questionable;

r The EIA reports prepared by the project proponents are not necessarily unbiased. The notification has not dealt with this issue;

r The existing procedure of public hearing leaves much to be desired and has not been addressed;

r It does not have a provision of arbitration for dispute resolution;

r Instead of decentralisation, the Centre assumes most of the responsibilities for clearance, including setting up SEIAAs and SEACs;

r SPCBs give consent for discharge of effluents, emissions and solid wastes from industrial and other activities. They are already doing much of the work related to EIAs. Therefore, the creation of parallel authorities is not justified. In fact, SPCBs should be strengthened for discharging the function of granting environmental clearance and the MoEF can play the role of an arbitrator, if disputes arise.

The MoEF, with a professional staff of less than a dozen for environmental clearance activities, should concentrate only on projects with inter-state/national and transnational implications.

For independent assessment, EIA reports should be prepared by organisations appointed by the ministry. Instead of over-reliance on project-oriented clearance which has its limitations, it is necessary to focus on performance guidelines/standards, environmental audit, technology audit, area-wise zoning, master plans, use of economic instruments and other cost-effective methods for integrating environmental concerns into projects.The government can also introduce self-assessment exercises to be vetted by recognised environmental auditors.

The writer is former chairman, Central Pollution Control Board