New Delhi: In what may speed up several infrastructure, real estate and industrial projects across the country after a hiatus of around two years, the central government has notified the expert panel, which would consider cases for grant of post facto environmental clearance.
Large projects require prior environmental clearance (EC), and retrospective approval for the existing projects has been a bone of contention for about five years. In July 2015, the National Green Tribunal quashed earlier provisions for retrospective approvals. Since then, various project developers moved the Supreme Court for relief, but to no avail. In March this year, a fresh notification was issued by Centre “to bring such projects and activities in compliance with the environmental laws at the earliest”.
Pursuant to its notification, the Environment Ministry has constituted the 11 member-Expert Appraisal Committee, which will be headed by S R Wate, a noted scientist and former Director of National Environmental Engineering Research Institute. Other members of the panel comprise experts from the fields of environment science, agriculture, chemical science etc.
The notification for the Committee has come almost three months after the Ministry declared that a six-month window will be given as one-time opportunity for securing environmental clearance for units which have not obtained such a nod earlier. The period of six months was to be computed from March 14 — the date of official statement.
The fresh notification, issued on Tuesday, clarifies that if any projects, or activities, or the expansion of existing projects requiring prior environmental clearance is found to have been undertaken without obtaining prior clearance, then it “shall be considered a case of violation of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006.” Such cases of violation “shall be dealt strictly”, it added.
“It is proposed to constitute the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) comprising of members with expertise in different sectors to appraise and make recommendations to the Central Government as cases of violation in all the sectors,” stated the notification, as it announced the constitution of the panel and named its chairman and 10 other members.
“The chairman and members of the Expert Appraisal Committee shall hold office for a term of three years from the date of publication of this order,” read the notification, as it further said that the panel may co-opt an expert as a member in a relevant field with prior approval of the Ministry.
Projects or activities involving an area of 20,000 square metres and above require prior environmental clearance (EC) from the Centre.
The issue of retrospective approval to errant projects has been a bone of contention since 2012 when the Environment Ministry issued its first office memorandum (OM) for post facto clearance. The Ministry came out with another OM in 2013, laying down a process for grant of EC to such cases of violation.
But in July 2015, the National Green Tribunal quashed these two OMs, holding “they suffer from the infirmity of lack of inherent jurisdiction and authority”. The NGT also restrained “the MoEF and the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) in the entire country from giving effect to these Office Memoranda in any manner whatsoever.” Various project developers moved the Supreme Court against this order but to no avail.
The lull created by the annulment of OMs slowed down the pace of various infra and residential projects, as the appraisal for post facto environmental clearance came to a complete halt. The government also did not find favour with NGT setting up expert panels for appraising projects on a case to case basis. The cabinet subsequently decided to issue fresh notification under the statutory powers to overcome this predicament.
On March 14, the Ministry came out with the notification “to bring such projects and activities in compliance with the environmental laws at the earliest point of time, rather than leaving them unregulated and unchecked”.
Taking into account concerns raised by environmentalists that post facto clearance mechanism would come handy to unduly favour violators and dilute the deterrent effect of environmental rules, the notification stated that EAC would recommend for closure if an unit has come up on a site where such activity is not permissible at all or it is not sustainable under the environment norms.
However, the work of appraising projects could not begin despite the March-notification for want of constitution of the expert committee. With the government finally notifying the constitution of the EAC, it is expected that the panel would speed up the task, given the fact scores of applications have piled up ever since seeking post facto clearances.