Make the laws simpler, implement them well
Given how more stuck projects exacerbate the NPA problem, the government has done well to come up with a one-time amnesty for projects that are operating or are under-construction without mandatory environmental clearances. A Business Standard report puts the number of such projects at 450. A six-month window will let those who began construction or expanded their projects or changed their product mix before March 11, 2017, without the necessary green clearances, apply for retrospective approval. The expert committee of the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) will first evaluate the projects for gross violation—it will recommend closure for projects set up in areas where the law expressly prohibits this. For those that make it past this smell test, an assessment of the environmental damage already done will be carried out, paid for by the developers, by accredited consultants and labs, after which developers must pay for the cost of damage as affixed by the expert committee and the environment ministry. The project must simultaneously begin the process followed for getting environmental clearance by having an impact assessment conducted as well as getting the approval at a public hearing.
While trying to fix old projects is welcome, greater focus needs to be paid to ensure future projects don’t flout environment norms. Getting green clearances has meant negotiating a maze of laws and compliances—Environment Protection Act (EPA) of 1986, Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980, Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) of 1972, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974 and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981 are just some of the laws that come into play. Thus, a government focused on making it easier to do business must find a way to make the environmental clearance process simpler and faster. Of the 1,447 applications the MoEFCC has received since July 4, 2014, 121 are awaiting grant of environment clearance as the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) is yet to meet and recommend the same, while 42 are yet to be taken up by the EAC in the first place. Of the 983 recommended for clearance by the EAC, 130 are awaiting the nod because approval is still “under process” by the concerned division, while six have been submitted to the competent authority for approval.
As far as deforestation due to projects is concerned, the latest Forest Survey of India (2015) suggests that this has perhaps been managed well—forest cover increased by 3,775 sq km as compared to the 2013 assessment. Were there to be more efficient deployment of the Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (Campa) funds—last year, nearly R1,900 crore was released to the states—the damage to the environment could be limited further.