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National security concerns: The Environment Ministry moves to assume state role in assessing small defense projects

National security concerns: The Environment Ministry moves to assume state role in assessing small defense projects

The environment ministry has proposed that it takes over processing green clearances of category B (small-sized) defense projects. It cites “national security concern” as the reason for this move.

This is just days after the ministry suggested that highway projects located within 100 km of the border/line of control be exempted from seeking environmental clearance.

Category B projects are smaller in size and have a low environmental impact. These projects are currently being processed by the State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority. (SEIAA).

The environment ministry has however, published a draft notification to amend the Environment Impact Assessment Notification (2006) to give it the power.

It noted that the central government now considers it necessary for category B to undergo central appraisal, taking into consideration national security concerns.

This will effectively mean that virtually all defense/security projects will be exempted from the reach of state green clearance bodies.

At the central level, the central appraisal of larger defense/strategic projects in Category A is underway.

However, the emphasis is on expediting strategic initiatives.

The ministry had stated in the April 12 notification that highways less than 100 km from the border were exempted. These projects are of strategic and defense importance and must be completed on priority. For several road widening projects along the border, which are intended to improve access for Indian troops, the exemption for highways is crucial. Some border states are also keen to reduce the requirements for wild life clearance.

The Border Roads Organisation and the defence and roads ministries have repeatedly requested expedited clearances for strategic project approvals.

The Centre granted a ‘general approbation’ in 2014 to allow the diversion of forest land for the construction of two-lane roads within 100km of the Line of Actual Control. This is located in Uttarakhand Himachal Pradesh Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.

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The environment ministry also waived forest clearance requirements for military infrastructure projects within 100km of the LAC in 2017 after the Doklam standoff.

Although the environment ministry has been considering such strategic projects and has approved them on priority, this issue has attracted greater attention since the 2020 clashes in Ladakh between Indian and Chinese troops.

In fact, the ministry has issued a series EIA notifications that amend the notification from 2006.

The one issued on April 20 has extended the Centre’s prerogative for category B projects on accounts other that defence-pandemic or natural disaster. It also includes projects to promote environmental activities under national programmes.

Activists have highlighted the harmful effects that exemptions and blanket clearances could have on forests and ecological systems.

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