Full acquisition of land not pre-requisite for environmental clearance: Environment ministry [%new%]
Garima Singh– The environment ministry has put down clear instructions on the do’s and don’ts for central and state statutory panels that appraise projects for environmental clearance even as it promised steps to make the approval process more predictable for industry. The ministry, which is seeking to shed the obstructionist image it acquired during the UPA regime, made its intension clear through a series of office orders on issues related to land acquisition, additional information relating to site selection of projects and categorisation of conditions set out in environment clearance.
Responding to demands by industry bodies, the ministry has told statutory environment clearance bodies that full acquisition of land is not a pre-requisite for considering a project for environmental clearance. At present, various central expert appraisal committees and state expert appraisal committees adopt different criteria about the extent of land that the developer must acquire before a project can be considered for clearance. Infrastructure-related ministries and industry bodies had demanded that full acquisition of land should not be made compulsory for projects to be considered for giving green clearance. Instead, initiation of the process of acquisition should be “sufficient”, they had said.
Accepting the argument, the ministry has ordered that in case the land is being acquired through government intervention, under the provisions of the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, then a copy of the preliminary notification issued by the concerned state government for the acquisition should suffice for the relevant appraisal committee to consider the project for environmental clearance. In case the land is being acquired through private negotiations with land owners, then the project developer must provide credible documents showing the intent of the land owners to sell the land for the proposed project.
The ministry’s order makes clear that environmental clearances granted to projects based on these documents will become invalid in the event of a change in the project site mentioned in the application. While the move will ensure that the environmental clearance process is not held up on account of time taken to acquire or purchase land, there are concerns that project developers may use the approvals given by the ministry to force an acquisition or sale. The order has not set out any safeguards for such an eventuality.
In another move to ease the clearance process, the ministry has ordered the statutory clearance bodies not to ask for additional studies relating to the suitability of a project site at the time of appraisal. Industry has claimed that seeking of additional information and studies during the appraisal phase of clearances – that is after the project developer has undertaken the environment-impact assessment and provided an environmental management plan – contributes to delays in clearances. The ministry order stresses that the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 provides for “scoping” of a project as one of the stages in the clearance process. Under this provision, the relevant appraisal committee recommends the terms of reference for the preparation of environment impact assessment and environment management plan reports. These terms of reference are site specific and are supposed to be comprehensive to address all possible environmental concerns relating to the project. The order makes it clear to the appraisal bodies that the scoping stage is time when the committees should consider the question of the suitability of the specific site and ask the project developer to provide the requisite information, which should include the alternative sites that were considered and the rationale for the final project site.
It has asked while appraising the project, the relevant committee “may satisfy itself that the terms of reference have been properly addressed in the environment impact assessment and environmental management plan reports and ensure that no fresh issues are raised”. This diktat will not apply if it turns out that information provided by the project developer at the time of scoping proves to be “false or misleading”. In such a situation, the application could even be considered for rejection. In the event new facts come to light during the appraisal process and it becomes “inevitable” for the expert committee to seek additional studies, then the minutes should record the justification for the additional studies and set proper timelines.
Agreeing to yet another demand by industry, the ministry has said the conditions that project developers are required to observe as part of the grant of clearance must be categorised clearly in terms the life cycle of the project.