In a step which would certainly evoke protests from environmentalists, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has lifted a moratorium on industry seeking environmental clearances for their projects in eight critically polluted areas (CPAs) across India.
Not just that, MoEF has also asked the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to "re-assess" the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) on the basis of which the latter had identified the 43 CPAs across the country in 2009.
CPCB, which is India's apex body to tackle pollution, had developed CEPI after which it had done a nation-wide environmental assessment of industrial clusters wherein 43 such industrial clusters having CEPI score greater than 70 (on a scale of 0 to 100) were identified as critically polluted areas. The UPA government then in January 2010 imposed a temporary moratorium on consideration of any developmental projects in these areas.
Last year in September while re-imposing moratorium in the eight areas, the environment ministry had categorically noted that even after two-and-a-half years of implementation of action plans there was
no improvement in environmental quality in these eight areas and in some of them pollution has increased.
It had, however, kept the window open to specific projects relating to "public interest and national interest such as pollution control, defence and security and renewal of mining", stating that decision on
them will be strictly based on merits.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government has, however, not only lifted that moratorium from those eight CPAs but also asked the pollution board to re-assess the CEPI for all the 43 heavily polluted areas within a year. These eight critically polluted areas are Ghaziabad (Uttar Pradesh), Indore (Madhya Pradesh), Jharsuguda (Odisha), Ludhiana (Punjab), Panipat (Haryana), Patancheru - Bollaram
(Andhra Pradesh), Singraulli (Uttar Pradesh & Madhya Pradesh) and Vapi (Gujarat).
Referring to its September 2013 order wherein it had re-imposed moratorium in these eight CPAs, MoEF in an order said, "it has been decided to keep in abeyance until further orders the (earlier) office
memorandum (September 2013 order) to the extent it related to the re-imposition of moratorium in eight CPAs till CPCB re-assesses the CEPI taking into account all constituents of index as originally
envisaged in 2009."
It has, however, clarified that "all projects requiring environmental clearance in these areas will be considered only by MoEF."
MoEF noted that while re-imposing the moratorium in the eight areas, CPCB was directed that the entire CEPI study, particularly in areas where the moratorium has been re-imposed, be reviewed and re-assessed after a period of four months.
"The report with respect to the entire CEPI concept that is taking into account all constituents as originally formulated in 2009, is yet to be received from CPCB. It is felt that re-assessment of CEPI taking into account all its constituents as originally formulated in 2009 is a must before taking a view on re-imposition of moratorium in any CPA," read MoEF's order.
CPCB prepares action plans to improve the environmental quality in these critically polluted areas and areas which improved with time are taken out of the banned list. However, interestingly these eight
critically polluted areas as per central government itself have shown no improvement in environmental quality even after two-and-a-half years of implementation of such action plans.
Environment ministry, which is led by BJP's Prakash Javadekar, also directed CPCB "to get the re-assessment of CEPI score done in all 43 CPAS, including the 8 CPAS, within a period of one year" and asked them to inform ministry about the outcome of that.
"Reassessment of CEPI score should take into account all constituents of the index as originally formulated in 2009. CPCB should properly demarcate each of these 43 CPAS by physical verification," the ministry said.
But the move will certainly result in raised eyebrows from environmentalists. "It is strange. CPCB study is still not completed … So what is the big hurry? If you want to err as MoEF then you should
err on the precautionary principle rather than removing moratorium and pressurising CPCB and asking it to give study in one year," prominent environmental lawyer Sanjay Upadhyay told dna.
CPCB had identified 83 polluted clusters in the country of which 43 areas were identified as Critically Polluted Areas
CPCB is monitoring 17 categories of highly polluting industries through an Environmental Surveillance Squad (ESS) programme which carries out surprise inspections
Of 3,266 industries identified under the 17 categories of highly polluting industries, 2,328 are complying with prescribed norms, 571 are non-complying and 367 have been closed down.