At the heart of what has gone wrong with mega projects on the Government’s sustainable development roadmap is the absence of an effective compliance mechanism.
Officials acknowledge that there are a few reasons for this, including a shortage of skilled manpower and resource limits. The Union Environment Ministry employs less than 80 field inspectors under green laws. They are expected to visit thousands upon thousands of project sites every year. The Ministry also granted 11,500 environmental and forest clearances between 2014 and 2019.
A 2006 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development blamed India’s lack of political will for the significant funding restrictions faced by all Indian environmental institutions. There has been little change since then.
Instead of strengthening monitoring mechanisms and applying effective punitive measures, successive governments relied on amnesty, incentives (subsidies), or self-certification, which helped reduce non-compliance.
The rejection rate for forest clearing falls below one percent and the Government decides it will incentivise the states for faster environmental clearance. This lackluster political will is further reinforced by the non-compliance even in megaprojects.
This was especially true when flagship projects were rejected or questioned by various Government expert panels over their viability before being cleared in strategic interest.
Take into account The Ken-Betwa Link Project. KBLP has been criticized for its huge environmental impact since it was first proposed in mid-90s. The project was actually rejected in 2011 and then revived with techno-economic clearance in 2016.
It was required to compensate for the loss of 60.17 square kilometers of forest land by granting equal revenue land to Panna Tiger Reserve in 2017. Although it is not within the Environment ministry’s power to change a condition made by its expert panels; the Ministry of Jal Shakti, Madhya Pradesh government have sought relaxations numerous times since 2018.
Take the mega-hydel projects in Arunachal Pradesh. Since 2004, both the Environment ministry (and the state) have ignored the most crucial condition that the Supreme Court imposed in 2004 to clear the Subansiri 2,000-MW project.
The Ministry granted the final forest clearance for the twice-rejected 3,000-MW Dibang multipurpose plant despite knowing that Arunachal had not met the crucial precondition of declaring the catchment forests a national park.
Similarly, multiple exceptions were made in granting clearances to Kulda coal mine in Orissa and Tamnar thermal plant in Chhattisgarh in the national interest even though the ministry and its expert panels were aware that the developers — Mahanadi Coalfields Limited and Jindal Power Limited — continued to transport coal through village roads.
Goa, which is nearly 50% behind in compensatory forest afforestation, was granted a 10-for-1 plantation target for the proposed international airport.
Justifiable or not, projects in strategic sectors and areas will have their environmental cost,” said M C Mehta, environmentalist and Supreme Court lawyer. Promising green solutions that neither developers nor regulators are serious about is against the Constitutional obligation to the precautionary principles for sustainable development and public trust. This sends a message that they are not serious about observing legal obligations, including court orders.
NewsletterClick to receive the best explanations in your inbox|Click to get the days best explainers in your inbox