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Roadblock ministry is now clearance ministry

From being termed a roadblock by India Inc to being viewed as clearing the way to development, the ministry, central to the environment-economy balance of any nation, has undergone a complete turnaround in the one year that the Modi government has been in power.

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Roadblock ministry is now clearance ministry
Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar often speaks of how his ministry has promoted the ‘ease of business’ in India
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Diluting the Forest Rights Act, giving the nod to a host of road and rail projects in green zones, disempowering tribals to empower industry and amending guidelines to hasten the implementation of project. With all this and more in just 12 months, the ministry of environment, forest and climate (MOEF&CC) has earned itself a new moniker – the ‘clearance’ ministry.

From being termed a roadblock by India Inc to being viewed as clearing the way to development, the ministry, central to the environment-economy balance of any nation, has undergone a complete turnaround in the one year that the Modi government has been in power.

The ministry has been on clearance spree since
Between June and December 2014, the MOEF&CC reportedly cleared 190 projects worth Rs.6.31 lakh crore. However, many of these are seen as detrimental to the protection of environment and wildlife in the country. “Last one year, there is virtually not a single step that the government has taken that shows they are concerned about environment issues. In their own document of achievements, they have enlisted only the relaxation of norms and clearances and there nothing about improvement of environment. The only thing to show is pollution monitoring mehcanisms, which is like buying a thermometer for treating fever,” said Ritwick Dutta, environmental lawyer. 

A good example of what Dutta said are the host of hydel projects proposed in Arunachal Pradesh that are based on ecologically critical rivers. Last September, the 3,000 MW Dibang multipurpose hydel project, (the biggest in the country) that was twice rejected by the forest appriasal committee of MoEF&CC, was given the forest clearance following directives from the Prime Minister's Office.
“Soon after the NDA assumed power, there were clear instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to relax a host of environmental norms and tweak them to project the ministry as business friendly. Many of these changes were brought in during the first few months of the government,” said an official privy to key changes.

Unlike his predecessor Jayanthi Natarajan, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar often speaks of how his ministry has promoted the ‘ease of business’ in India, one of the many mantras adopted by the BJP-led government.

Initial moves
Amongst his first moves as environment minister was to initiate the online submission of applications for obtaining environment, forest and coastal regulation zone clearances. Though the process of online submissions was initiated under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Javadekar has claimed all credit.
Soon after, the ministry cleared several projects that were rejected by the previous regime. In fact, the ministry under Javadekar has been marked by its hurry to change environmental norms, mostly through executive orders and notifications.

The government granted general approval to border road projects within 100 km of the Line of Actual Control on the India-China border. Besides, in 117 Left Wing Extremist districts, projects were exempted from going through the two stage forest clearance process and only general approvals were enough. This meant that these projects would not be scrutinized for the ecological impact they would have on the forests.

Amongst the ministry’s most controversial moves has been the leniency it has shown in granting clearances for linear projects such as highways, transmission lines, railway lines and reservoirs which involve ‘linear diversion’ of land. The ministry amended guidelines to enable work on projects to begin work immediately after obtaining in-principle approvals and after they had paid compensatory levies. The ministry also gave powers to regional offices to issue forest clearances for all sizes of projects.

Following this, the ministry diluted the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) that is responsible for clearing projects falling within 10 km radius of protected areas. The ministry reconstituted the NBWL and reduced the number of independent members, who were an active part during the UPA rule. The reconstituted NBWL cleared as many as 140 projects in the 12-13 August, 2014 meeting, but the ministry’s decision was soon challenged in the Supreme Court and the ministry had to climb down from their stand and bring in independent members in the body.

Road, rail projects
The NBWL and forest advisory committee (FAC) have approved several road projects and railway projects that pass through critical green corridors connecting protected areas.
In 2014, FAC cleared the twice rejected proposal for widening the Gondia-Jabalpur railway line that will cut through the corridor connecting Kanha and Pench tiger reserve. Another railway project, passing through Ratapani tiger reserve on the Bhopal-Itarsi line, was also approved.

With regards to road projects, NBWL approved the diversion of forestland from Dandeli wildlife sanctuary in Karnataka, the Namdapha tiger reserve in Arunachal Pradesh. For NH-6 and NH-7, key corridors such as the Kanha-Indravati across Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, Bor-Melghat and Nagzira-Navegaon in Maharashtra would be affected. In addition to this, two irrigation projects were also approved around the Melghat tiger reserve in Maharashtra.

Tribal rights
The ministry's efforts to dilute the Forest Rights Act (FRA) have faced tough opposition from the ministry of tribal affairs. Following a directive from PMO, the environment ministry prepared draft guidelines that would dilute FRA and do away with the mandatory consent of tribal gram sabhas to divert forest land for linear infrastructure projects (non-forestry purposes) and those 'public utilities managed by government. 
The tribal ministry termed the provisions of the draft guidelines an encroachment. “We have had meetings with the environment ministry to sort out these issues and the entire process is to simplify and delineate forest clearances from the FRA nod,” said an official from tribal ministry.

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