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Environmentalists in India are criticising the government's continuous approval to major industrial projects by relaxing environmental norms. The officials are taking advantage of the pandemic by pushing through projects that could further harm the country's natural environment.
The Science magazine reported that with the ongoing lockdown, which is in its third phase now, the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change have been busy permitting controversial projects that could have adverse impacts on biodiversity and nature's bounty.
According to media reports, the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) which falls under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) recommended coal mining in a part of an elephant reserve in Assam on April 24.
Earlier on April 7, the board's Standing Committee had discussed a proposal for use of 98.59 hectares of land from the Saleki proposed reserve forest land for a coal mining project by North-Easter Coal Field (NECF), a unit of Coal India Limited.
Saleki is a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve that includes the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary covering 111.19 sq km of rainforest and several reserve forests in Sivasagar, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts.
The move will permit preliminary drilling inside a wildlife sanctuary that is home to endangered lion-tailed macaques and great Indian hornbills.
The Union environment ministry's Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) virtually reviewed the controversial 3097 MW Etalin Hydroelectric Project that seeks to divert 1150.08 hectares of land. The project will involve diversion of 1150.08 ha of forest land and felling of 2.7 lakh trees in one of the most biodiverse Himalayan zones in Arunachal Pradesh's Dibang Valley.
According to a Hindustan Times report, a Wildlife Institute of India (WII) study has documented 413 plants, 159 butterflies, 113 spiders, 14 amphibian, 31 reptile, 230 bird and 21 mammalian species within the project area.
"They are carrying on as if there is no health emergency, hosting meetings and taking decisions including on big-ticket projects," Kanchi Kohli, an environmental governance expert at the think tank Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi was quoted as saying.
"Public engagement, ground verification — these options are all foreclosed at this time," Kohli added.
Analysts have stated that the government's drive to approve industrial projects even during the health crisis is in line with PM Modi's pro-business stance.
The ministry is also moving ahead with a rewrite of some of India's environmental rules.
A new draft policy on assessing the environmental impacts of large projects was issued on March 23. It is expected to significantly overhaul the environmental clearance process for all infrastructure projects in the country. Among other changes, the draft proposed reducing the time allowed for public comment on assessments and allowing more projects to avoid the public comment process entirely.
The proposed changes could normalize the approval of projects that went ahead without environmental clearance, critics informed.
The ministry had initially given the public 60 days to comment on the proposal, but several groups asked it to pause the process given the pandemic. The Union environment ministry has decided to extend the window for submitting public comments to the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification until June 30.
While the time period for public comments has been extended till June 30, several environmental groups have said that it isn't enough.
The draft EIA 2020 proposes a number of relaxations for infrastructure projects which have violated the EIA 2006 norms and extends the validity of environmental clearance in various sectors by several years.
The draft aims at bringing those industries or projects under the regulation which have violated the EIA 2006 notification by starting construction work before environmental clearance is granted or by expanding capacity. "Dealing with violation cases" is an entirely new section in the draft notification compared to the EIA notification 2006.
According to the draft, violations can be reported suo motu by the project proponent, by any government authority or found by the committee appraising such projects.
"The draft does clarify that closure orders can be issued for any project that is found in violation of the notification. The cognizance is possible if this is found during the appraisal of an application. While this is important, it normalizes the occurrence of violations in the first place and is contradictory with the idea of "prior environmental clearance" which is the premise an impact assessment process rests on," said Kohli.
The draft increases the validity of the environment clearances. The draft provides environment clearance validity for 50 years for mining projects, against 30 years in the present notification; 15 years from river valley projects against 10 years.
Project proponents will have to submit environment clearance compliance reports once a year against every six months in the current system.
The draft further states that no fresh studies by EAC should be asked for unless "new facts" come to the notice and it becomes "inevitable" to seek additional studies.
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