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Climate and Us | Two draft green clearance notifications that should worry us

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Last week, the Union environment ministry issued two important draft notifications and discussed some contentious policies in their Forest Advisory Committee meeting.

People would have missed these draft notifications because they are not uploaded on the environment ministry’s home page as is normally the case for most notifications.

I found them on the Centre’s e-gazette website after someone tipped me off about them.

Though on a first reading they seemed innocuous, these drafts will have widespread impacts on people and environmental policy. Here’s why.

On April 11, the environment ministry published a draft notification stating that some highway projects near India’s borders are sensitive and hence need to be exempted from the requirement of seeking environment clearance (EC). Instead, the draft prescribed environmental safeguards for self-compliance by project developers. In particular, the draft sought to exempt all highway projects up to 100 km from the line of control/border subject to compliance with a standard operating procedure notified from time to time.

The draft also made EC exemptions for other sectors like thermal power plants up to 25 MW capacity based on biomass or non-hazardous municipal solid waste; increased the exemption threshold for fish handling capacity of ports/harbours which exclusively handle fish; exempted expansion of airport terminals etc. But these exemptions are not as worrying as the one made for highways in border areas.

This is for two reasons — most of India’s border areas are in the fragile western and eastern Himalayas where highway construction may involve hill-cutting; slope destabilisation etc; another reason is people’s experience with the char Dham pariyojana in Uttarakhand.

In the case of the 880 km long char Dham pariyojana which I have been following since 2018 when the matter was in the National Green Tribunal, the project bypassed environment impact appraisal altogether. In an affidavit, the union environment ministry informed the Tribunal that under EIA notification 2006, only new national highways and expansion of highways that are longer than 100 km need prior environmental clearance. But char Dham pariyojana had been broken into several small stretches separated by 16 bypasses.

Citizens of Green Doon, an Uttarakhand based environmental group that had moved NGT stating that the highway has not undergone an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and pleaded that its cumulative impact be assessed first, also moved SC thereafter in 2019.

On December 14 last year, the Supreme Court permitted the Union government to construct all-weather roads of 10m width as part of its Char Dham project in Uttarakhand, underlining that “the recent past has thrown up serious challenges to national security”, and that wide strategic feeder roads to Indo-China border areas were required for the infrastructural needs of the armed forces.

In its report to the top court earlier, a high-powered committee on the matter had presented a divided opinion, with a majority in favour of wider roads on the Char Dham route, considering the strategic requirement and snow removal needs.

But the serious impact of the road project on the Himalayan ecology is often overlooked. I travelled on the Char Dham road stretches a couple of times after it had been widened. Some of these stretches are extremely landslide prone because slope stabilisation was yet to be carried out; many hill slopes had been scraped to make way and muck is seen washing to Ganga from the hillsides.

Several geologists and ecologists specialising in Himalayan geology have told me that Uttarakhand will see the repercussions of this kind of construction in the long run also. In short, a study of what is suited for this region and then planning the construction keeping in sight the fragility of the Himalayan region is of utmost importance. This would also mean going through a mandatory environmental clearance process.

The environment ministry’s draft notification of April 11 has once again raised worries about char Dham like projects in other parts of the country.

On April 12, the environment ministry issued another draft notification stating that the validity of environmental clearance granted to hydro projects will be extended to 13 years; 15 years for nuclear projects; and for mining projects it can be extended up to 50 years.

Under the Environment Impact Assessment notification 2006, the validity of prior environmental clearance granted for a project or activity is 10 years in the case of River Valley projects; a maximum of 30 years for mining projects and 7 years in the case of all other projects and activities.

While it is understandable that very often time is lost due to delay in obtaining forest clearance, land acquisition, local issues, rehabilitation and resettlement, which also delays the starting of operations, this kind of extension doesn’t address environmental concerns.

For example, what is the impact of mining in a region for half a lifetime? How does it impact local people and what is their equation with project proponents when they are handed over land (in most cases forest land) for such a long time? Are hydropower projects still economically and ecologically viable when prices of renewable energy (solar and wind) are so competitive?

These are some questions that jump to mind.

Meanwhile, the Forest Advisory Committee in its meeting held on March 31 discussed a proposal to delink oil and gas extraction from mining projects, as far as the environmental appraisal is concerned. If approved, oil and gas extraction will not be considered a mining activity anymore.

The ministry of petroleum and natural gas (MoPNG) has requested the environment ministry to create a separate category for appraisal of oil and gas projects on their Parivesh portal, where various environmental clearances are processed. While FAC has deferred its decision on the matter, it maintained that the extraction of natural gas and petroleum is not mining as per the interpretation of a 2006 Supreme Court order.

Senior officials and experts said delinking oil and gas extraction from mining projects will ensure a less stringent appraisal of these projects. They may not need a nod from the national board for wildlife or the FAC if they are not “mining” projects.

On January 16, 2020, offshore and onshore oil and gas exploration were exempted from detailed impact assessments and public hearings. The Baghjan gas and oil leak in Assam’s Tinsukia in 2020 which led to large scale environmental damage in the region along the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Maguri-Motapung Wetland and evacuation of local communities should tell us why stringent environmental appraisal of oil and gas extraction projects is a must. Or, we will have to pay a very high cost of diluting environmental policies in different parts of the country.

From the climate crisis to air pollution, from questions of the development-environment tradeoffs to India’s voice in international negotiations on the environment, HT’s Jayashree Nandi brings her deep domain knowledge in a weekly column

The views expressed are personal

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