The ministry of environment and forests, headed by Jairam Ramesh, has put on hold till December 16 environmental clearance for industrial projects across various sectors in the coastal Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra.
In view of the moratorium, which was put in place on August 16, projects in the fields of power, mining, chemical and petrochemicals, fertiliser, steel, processing, oil and gas transportation pipeline and 11 other sectors will have to wait till December 16 for the clearance.
This comes close on the heels of the ministry's stand on the development of a new international airport in Navi Mumbai.
It has opposed the project on environmental grounds, though Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel has said that it is the best option to decongest the Mumbai airport.
"The moratorium has been imposed under the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006. It will be applicable to category-A and -B projects," an official in the ministry said.
Category-A projects need environment clearance from the ministry on the recommendations of an Expert Appraisal Committee, while category-B need environmental approval from the environment impact assessment authority of the state.
However, the state government has protested the move. An official, who did not want to be quoted, said: "The moratorium is unwarranted. The ministry could have made the conditions with regard to pollution more stringent or introduced online monitoring. The decision comes at a time when the government plans to study the possibilities for the Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts."
Power projects of about 35,000 Mw are being planned in the two districts. These include, amongst others, the expansion of Dabhol to 1,500 Mw, JSW's Jaigad project of 1,200 Mw plus (which can be expanded to 3,000 Mw) and Nuclear Power Corporation's 10,000 Mw plant.
Some of these projects have received in-principle clearance, though the final approval is awaited. However, environment ministry sources said as these projects were under various stages of approval they would not be impacted by the moratorium.
According to the ministry's communication of August 16 to the state government and the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, the moratorium has been imposed because it has received representations about the environmental impact and ecological degradation the projects under implementation and the new ones proposed could cause.
The ministry said the matter regarding development in these districts was referred to the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel which has been set up to suggest conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the Western Ghats. Nearly 63,000 hectares are under mango cultivation in Ratnagiri and 28,000 hectares in Sindhudurg, while cashewnut is grown on 90,000 hectares in Ratnagiri and 75,000 hectares in Sindhudurg.
The annual turnover from mangoes alone is of the order of Rs 2,400 crore (Rs 24 billion). Vivek Bhide of the Ratnagiri Zilla Jagruk Manch has deplored the move: "The decision to put a moratorium for projects after August 16 means those projects under implementation or being planned earlier will be cleared. The region needs cumulative impact assessment which has not yet been done."