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The 'bogey' of green clearances

Last updated on: October 10, 2011 12:10 IST

The 'bogey' of green clearances

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Sunita Narain in New Delhi

Environment is holding up growth and economic development. This is the common refrain in circles that matter.

So, when the Group of Ministers tasked to resolve the issue of coal mining in forests asked for a report on what needed to be done, it was told that the best would be to dismantle green conditions (almost completely) so that development could be pursued. The B K Chaturvedi Committee recommends all coal-mining projects be given automatic clearance, with exceptions only for projects in 'dense' areas.

There is no definition of 'dense' or an understanding of the importance of protecting forests for water or livelihood security.

Then, the committee wants all provisions that seek to protect rights of local people or the environment to be relaxed.

It recommends that the gram sabha required to give consent to the project be held without a quorum - in other words, democracy be sidelined. People should not be heard.

Similarly, public hearings should be done away with when it comes to projects for expansion of the current mine.

It also recommends that even in areas identified as critically polluted, new projects be allowed without check. It has no time to waste on such minor considerations as the health of people who live in these regions.

The horrendous cumulative impacts of these massive projects must be ignored, because we are a nation in a hurry, it says.

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Image: A committee wants all coal-mining projects to be given automatic clearance.

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The 'bogey' of green clearances

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This report reflects the general mood. It is for this reason that the proposed manufacturing policy, which seeks to create massive areas as national investment manufacturing zones, wants nothing of this inconvenient and unnecessary green stuff.

It wants to take away all powers of environment and forest clearances from the Centre and state agencies and hand it over to the project proponents.

But are green clearances holding up projects? My colleagues spent days pouring over the publicly-available database of the the ministry of environment and forests to seek answers.

What they found should make us wonder why there is such a cry about environment as an impediment for growth. In fact, the reverse is true.

But, in the current situation, green clearances are certainly failing to safeguard the environment. This is what should concern us. Make us angry.

First, what should be understood is that the scale and pace of green clearances has been unprecedented in the past five years.

During this period, some 2,03,576 ha of forestland was diverted for mining and industrial projects - the pace of clearance doubled in the past five years.

Secondly, clearances for projects added together are far above the current, and even future, utilisation.

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Image: Pace of clearance doubled in the past five years.

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The 'bogey' of green clearances

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Take the matter of power projects. The 11th Five-Year Plan aims 50,000 Mw of additional thermal power capacity to be created till 2012. In the 12th Plan the proposal is to add 100,000 Mw more.

This needs to be built and set up till 2017.

Now consider that in the past five years, till August 2011, the Union ministry of environment and forests has granted environmental clearance to an astounding 210,000 Mw of thermal power capacity - in other words, 60,000 Mw more than what has been proposed till 2017.

Now, also consider that the thermal power capacity actually built in the past five years is only 32,394 Mw. What is going on?

Why are new projects asking for clearances, when the old cleared projects are still not being built? Is this a land or water and coal linkage scam - as each project sits on valuable natural resources?

Or, is it all about getting the licence to pollute? What is happening?

Take yet another matter, of coal - its shortages are being cited as the reason for underperformance of the energy sector, which, in turn, is leading to a strident call to open up more and more forested regions for digging.

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Image: Why are new projects asking for clearances, when the old cleared projects are still not being built?

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The 'bogey' of green clearances

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The fact is that Coal India Ltd produces over 90 per cent of India's coal; it has under its control over 200,000 ha of mine lease, including 55,000 ha of forest area.

The estimated coal reserves with CIL are 64 billion tonnes, and the company produces 500 million tonnes per annum. Who is then responsible for the shortage of coal in the country?

What is clear, instead, is that in this unseemly haste to give clearances, it is the environment that is being short-changed.

Each project is being cleared without considering the cumulative 'combined' impact of a project on the environment and the health of people. As a result, most mining districts of the country have become living hell.

More and more districts of the country are emerging as the hotbeds of thermal, mining and industrial projects, and nobody wants to take corrective action to fix the horrendous environmental fallout of this growth.

So, what needs to be done? In my view, environmental regulations should be strengthened, not weakened. Growth managers must look for other reasons why they are failing in pushing up their industry numbers.

But, more importantly, environmentalists must look to see how the regulatory regime can be made better, much better, for our future. This is the agenda that matters.

Let's discuss this.


Image: Most mining districts have become living hell.

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