Clearance for New Projects

Say no to environmental clearance for projects now: Wildlife activists

Print edition : June 05, 2020

Union Minister Prakash Javadekar. Photo: V.V. KRISHNAN

Wildlife enthusiasts seek withholding of speedy environmental clearances without checking the basis of the project proposals in person.

On May 13, eminent wildlife enthusiasts and activists sent a letter to Prakash Javadekar, the Minister for Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) requesting him to “withhold forest and environmental clearances during the COVID-19 pandemic”.

The letter was in response to decisions taken at the 57th meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) on April 7. The decisions pertained to 31 proposals that could affect 15 tiger reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, notified eco-sensitive zones, deemed eco-sensitive zones in the fringes of protected areas and designated wildlife corridors. The letter signed by 291 wildlifers said the decisions should “not be implemented and must be visited afresh following due process after the end of the pandemic”.

At the heart of the objection was the manner in which the decisions were made. “Meeting via videoconferencing in its present form, strongly handicaps such authorities from carrying out the roles that they are mandated to fulfil,” the letter stated. “The appraisals and assessments for clearance are being reduced to an empty formality, lacking the credibility and rigour of its purpose,” It said. For instance, maps could not be scrutinised.

Clause (iii) of Rule 5 of the Forest Conservation (Rules), 2003, (amended up to August 2017) “prescribes that site inspections may be necessary or expedient while considering a diversion proposal”. Since site visits are not possible in view of the pandemic, this was enough to nullify decisions taken through videoconferencing.

The letter quotes a press report which said that “Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) meetings that usually last an entire day were scheduled for two hours, giving members only 10 minutes to appraise each project.”

The letter further said, “The Ministry appears to be relying only on digital documents uploaded by project developers on the Parivesh single window clearance portal”, and on the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Lafarge case (2011) allowing the French company to resume limestone mining in Meghalaya. This would allow “identification of an area as forests, solely based on the declaration filed by the user agency (project proponent)” and lead to “fait accompli situations”.

The 2011 judgment allowed the French cement company and its sister concern Lafarge Umiam Mining Pvt Ltd to mine 116 hectares of limestone in Meghalaya’s East Khasi hills. Lafarge’s mining was based on a report by the Deputy Conservator of Forests in 2000, which categorised the area as wasteland. In February 2010, the Supreme Court stopped the mining activity saying it could not be allowed in an eco-sensitive zone. In April 2010, the Ministry provided Lafarge with revised environmental clearances, which the apex court upheld. Invoking the principles of sustainable development, inter-generational equity and the doctrine of proportionality the special forest bench headed by Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia of the Supreme Court said it was “satisfied with the diligence exercise undertaken by MoEF in the matter of forest diversion”.

The letter points out that the guidelines “insist that in case of any doubts regarding the status of land made by the project proponent, it shall be inspected by forest officials along with members from the Regional Office of the MoEF&CC, to ascertain the status of forests…. [However, the] compliance of these guidelines may not be possible during the lockdown period which may amount to a serious deviation in the clearance process. Under normal circumstances, project developers would be expected to provide documents that elucidate a project’s impact on the environment, for clarification during in-person meetings. In several instances, documents are also requested via speed-post, which may not be possible due to travel restrictions. Additionally, the inputs of local officials who are often posted in remote areas are regularly sought and one is unsure whether they were available to share their comments. Thus, the required due diligence as mandated by law and judgments of the Supreme Court will be severely compromised by clearances being granted through video conference calls… as a result of travel restrictions, social distancing… and other hardships… during the lockdown and in the foreseeable future, it is difficult to implement the Ministry’s own mandated procedures.” Public hearings are impossible to hold so stakeholders are unable to register their concerns.

It conclusion, the letter states: “In view of the compelling facts and circumstances… we request that the implementation of decisions taken by the NBWL via videoconferencing be held in abeyance until pandemic-related travel restrictions are lifted to allow in-person meetings and travel to project sites for fresh appraisals following due process. We further urge that all meetings of the NBWL, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) and all the 10 EACs be postponed as long as travel restrictions make verification of documents during in-person meetings, local representations, and site visits difficult. We raise these grave concerns, ironically, in the midst of a pandemic, which has been a reminder to examine our human-nature relationships to protect our ecosystems and socio-ecological networks. Thus, in larger public interest, we urge you to consider our requests and carry out the intended mandate of the Ministry, which is the protection of India’s forests, wildlife and natural heritage and not fast-track clearance of projects.”

Explaining the urgency of the situation, Kishor Rithe, one of the signatories of the letter and a former member of the NBWL’s Standing Committee, said: “NBWL clearance process should not be completed as a mere formality. It is the country’s top-most body to ensure wildlife management and conservation. As our Protected Areas [PAs comprise only 4 per cent of the total geographic area] are the country’s last remaining wildlife habitats, granting clearance to any project proposed inside the PA and in environmentally sensitive areas should be a last resort…. The SC-NBWL need to check the authenticity of information provided by project proponents, which includes the status of the forest land, notifications, maps orders passed by the courts and NGT [National Green Tribunal], etc. Then they need to check the facts on the ground through site inspections specially in the backdrop of scientific and objective criteria of a PA. On the basis of the site visit, the committee need to suggest mitigation measures, if at all the project need to be cleared. If the SC-NBWL is seriously screening these project proposals, 40 per cent of total proposals put up in every SC-NBWL meeting requires site inspection. I do not think it is possible through video-conferencing. The lockdown situation due to COVID-19 does not allow fair screening of these proposals.”

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