The Union Environment Ministry’s proposal to rank and encourage states to give environmental clearances for infrastructure projects has been criticized by environmentalists as it goes against basic principles of environmental regulation.
The Union Environment Ministry issued a note to States on January 17, detailing seven criteria for grading State Environmental Impact Assessment Agencies. On a scale from one to seven, an SEIAA receives two marks for granting clearance in less that 80 days, one mark for approval within 105 days, and none for more. The SEIAA would be awarded one mark if the committee visited less than 10% the projects that were up for scrutiny. This was to inspect the ground conditions. A score of more than 20% would result in a denial or zero marks. A SEIAA score of seven or higher would earn it five stars.
The proposal was rejected by the Legal Initiative for Forest on Environment (LIFE), which is a prominent environmental organisation. The criteria show that projects that have less due diligence are given greater weight ….SEIAA members should be confined to conference rooms and make decisions and earn high marks ….. This ensures that projects can be cleared in the shortest time possible. The SEIAA has the task of conducting a thorough inspection. This notification, however, makes them rubber stamp authorities.
Minister officials spoke The Hindu The SEIAA did not intend to speed up clearances, but rather to encourage them to make quicker decisions about approving or rejecting projects and to adhere to the timelines set forth in the Act. This system does not reduce the time it takes to decide on a project. Leena Nandan (Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests) stated that if a SEIAA requests clarification, the time it takes to respond will not be deducted. The HinduSEIAA were also informed earlier that clarifications they may need must be compiled, not repeated requests.
Sujit Bajpayee was Joint Secretary, Environment Ministry. He wrote responses to The Hindus query that the SEIAA had complete liberty to complete all due diligence without worrying too much about the time and that States would be not negatively marked for not meeting ranking criteria.
An SEIAA, which consists of both State officers and independent specialists, must first approve any proposed infrastructure projects exceeding a certain amount that could significantly alter the natural environment. The Centre has a committee composed of experts that must approve projects that involve forest land or are larger than the category B. SEIAA projects are classified B, which is relatively small, but they make up the majority for projects that are submitted for approval. B category projects are those that involve the bulk of building and construction, small-scale mining, and small-scale industry projects. They are less polluting.
The online project appraisal process requires that aspirant companies upload documents to a portal called Parivesh.
Kanchi Kohli, a specialist in environment law and governance, noted that the rating system severely restricted SEIAA members’ ability to exercise their scientific, administrative, and legal knowledge. The emphasis on quick and efficient clearance made it difficult to maintain scientific rigour in decision-making.