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(Image Courtesy narendramodi.in)
 
Should a village dabha owner be required to seek Central Government approval to acquire a few square metres of forest land for creating a new access to his food outlet? Should his application not be cleared at the district level? Is it not good enough for the owner of Baba Da Dabha in a Punjab village to support his application with 10 documents. These include separate assurances to pay for compensatory afforestation (CA) and make additional payment for the forest’s net present value (NPV). 
Should the nodal officer of the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MOEF) have returned his application with the objection - “geo reference map not enclosed; project site not visible on survey sheet”? Does MOEF expect a villager to submit geo reference digital data as mandated under its order issued in July 2011?
The Union Minister for Environment and Forest, Prakash Javadekar, must ponder over these issues as more than 50% of the forest clearance applications filed since 15th July 2014 have been returned to applicants with one objection or the other? Some of the objections are friovlous. 
The returned proposals include Sauni Yojna, the Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi’s dream project to bring Narmada flood waters to drought-hit Saurashtra region in Gujarat. Another similar, returned project is named Pokaran Falsoond Balotra Siwana Lift Water Supply Project that would bring potable water to three towns and 563 villages in Barmer & Jaisalmer districts of Rajasthan. 
Many of the returned applications envisage acquistion of a few square metres of forest land. Baba Da Daba, for instance, requires diversion of 0.0040 hectares of forest land at Village Tanuli in Hoshiarpur district of Punjab.
Should forest clearnce for cases envisaging acquisition of a few square metres of forest land for water projects, bridges and roads not be fast-tracked? 
Should the Government not reinvent the CA framework to pave the way for credible, visible and larger greener India without hurting the development process? The Government should perhaps increase CA to 6 trees for every tree cut from the present two trees for one cut.  Simultaneously, the responsibility for locating land for CA should be that of Forest Department, which can be made the owner of large chunks of waste and barren land across the countryside. 
These issues assume added relevance against the backdrop of PM’s repeated call for Minimum Government; Maximum Governance. Mr. Javadekar should also consider these issues in the light of his recent claim that the ‘Office Office’ game was no longer played by his ministry to delay projects.     
‘Office Office’ is the name of the popular Hindi satire on harassment of public at corruption-prone Government offices that was telecast several years ago.
Mr. Javadekar referred to this serial at a press conference on 3rd September to trumpet his claim about the dramatic shift in the functioning of his Ministry following change in the government from UPA to NDA.
He reportedly said: “We have made it clear that there will be a simpler, cleaner, speedier and transparent mechanism in the ministry.”
Before detailing PM’s Sauni Yojna and a few other public interest projects, it would be appropriate to show that NDA Government has not succeeded in ending the Office Office play at MOEF. Instances are aplenty to substantiate this point. 
Take the case of Jinbhuvish Power Generations Pvt Ltd which applied for forest clearance for 30.47 hectares on 8th September. Two days later, MOEF’ nodal officer returned the online application with comment – “copy of environmental clearance to the project –attached pdf file was not open.” 
This objection is flippant as the environmental clearance is just a mouse click away. Any citizen can download this approval from environmentalclearance.nic.in within a few seconds. 
Take now the case of Heavy Water Board (HWB) that had applied for terms of reference for undertaking environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies on the nuclear-grade sodium metal plant proposed to be set up at Baroda. Sodium is used as a coolant in fast breeder reactors. The country at present relies entirely on imports for meeting its diverse requirements for sodium. 
Notwithstanding the strategic importance of sodium and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for manufacturing renaissance, MOEF’s expert appraisal committee (EAC) for industrial projects did not approve this project but referred it to another committee. 
According to the minutes of EAC (Industry) meeting held during 30th July-1st August 2014, “The Committee recommended that the said project proposal falls under Metallurgical Industries (Ferrous and nonferrous) as Sodium is non-ferrous as per item no. 3 (a) of the schedule. However, this proposal does not involve any metallurgical activities but how same can be covered in 3 (a). However, being a strategic Project, this proposal may be appraised by the EAC for Nuclear Power/Strategic Projects.”
The fact is the sodium manufacturing process is essentially chemical and thus falls within the purview of EAC (Industry). In any case, there would have been no global warming if it had cleared the project by taking note of the fact that EAC for nuclear projects meets hardly once or twice a year. 
Take now the case of beach sand minerals, many of which are used for production of strategic materials for nuclear, aerospace and defence sectors. Beach minerals mining and downstream projects can also serve as a major platform for jobs and wealth creation. These issues are irrelevant to experts with tunnel vision. 
The EAC for Projects related to Infrastructure Development, Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ- EAC), Building/Construction and Miscellaneous projects is thus virtually against beach mining that involves excavation. It has thus neither cleared nor rejected nor explicitly deferred such projects over last several months. 
The Committee should ponder whether it is possible to mine non-hydrocarbon minerals without excavation. 
It is here pertinent to quote minutes of CRZ- EAC relating to four applications of Kerala Minerals and Metals Limited (KMML) that were considered at a meeting held during 30th July-1st August 2014. 
As put by the minutes, “The CRZ EAC being a Committee for protection of coastline of the country is really concerned about mining practices which involve excavation, whether manual or mechanical with such depth upto 8 meter, and its impact on the GW (ground water) and coastline. The PP (project proponent) has indicated that the excavated areas will be backfilled. The Committee is of the view that it should get a clear guideline from the MOEF who may like to consult with the IBM and Atomic Minerals Division whether such proposals with depth of excavation of such range are to be recommended.”
The 1998 policy to throw open the beach sand minerals-based industries to Indian private and foreign companies has virtually remained a non-starter due to environmental activism and regulatory hassles. India has the world’s largest reserves of heavy minerals, most of which have thus remained untapped because of policy and regulatory hurdles.
Consider now the fate of two applications filed by Airport Authority of India (AAI) for expansion of Hubli airport in Karnataka and development of an airport at Kishangarh in Rajasthan. 
At its meeting during August-end 2014, CRZ-EAC implicitly deferred recommendation of environmental clearance (EC) to these projects by questioning AAI’s data about the projected noise levels during the operation of the airports. It thus advised AAI to revisit noise data modeling.  
How can noise pollution become an issue for airports that have small air strips with one at Kishangarh not functioning for several years? If noise pollution is an issue, then all bustling airports should be closed. The public should, however, be allowed to live merrily with the noise generated by crackers burst during Diwali, cricket match victory, marriages, etc. 
The fact that CRZ-EAC is wedded to Office Office mentality can be confirmed by taking up the case of Ennore Port Limited’s proposal to set up two additional berths to handle imported coal. CRZ-EAC implicitly deferred environmental clearance for this project by posing three queries. 
The most significant query reads as: “It was observed that the port has proposed to cut a part of land within the port limit to an extent of 300 m X 300 m and up to a depth of 16 m to construct the proposed berths. The Committee advised the PP to come up with similar cases which have obtained environmental and CRZ clearance by creating a cut within the port area along with the possible impact on the environment and tranquility of harbour.”
The same panel has not approved two small projects of Andaman Lakshdweep Harbour Works at Lakshdweep Islands as it believes they would pose threat to live corals which are allegedly facing extinction. CRZ-EAC opined: “The damage could be irreversible.”
The Office Office culture in MOEF is deterrent for any company seeking change in environmental clearance (EC) to factor in technological and market developments. Amendment is discouraged even if it brings in reduction in emissions specified in EC. EAC (Industry) has not allowed amendments to EC in certain cases and have instead asked the companies to start afresh by applying for terms of reference (TOR) for initiating EIA studies on the project. Even change of foreign collaborator has not been allowed in one case. 
Take the case of B.M.M Ispat Ltd which has so far invested Rs 2993 crore on its upcoming steel plant in Bellary district of Karnataka.  It applied for change in configuration is as it realized that there is good market for Bars & sections than flat products. It also proposed certain changes to improve energy efficiency.
At its meeting held during 30th July-1st August 2014,  EAC(Industry) decided that “no amendment to the EC dated 18.05.2010 would be considered either for expansion of the aforesaid units or for reintroduction of the dropped units, which have been deleted by the PP in the revised proposal and any further changes/modifications/expansion to the project would require obtaining fresh TORs and an EC afresh as per provisions of the EIA Notification 2006.”
MOEF and its appendages, however, do not hesitate in resorting to retrospective applications of its regulations often issued as office memorandum or circulars. Take the case of Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertilizers and Chemicals (GNFC). In March 2013, MOEF exempted GNFC’s Rs 4463-crore fertilizers-cum-chemicals expansion project from the public hearing “as per Section 7 (i), III Stage (3), Para (i) (b) of EIA Notification 2006, as project is located in the notified industrial area.” 
The terms of reference (TOR) letter stated: “The final EIA/EMP report shall be submitted to the Ministry for obtaining environmental clearance.”
EAC(Industry), however, denied EC to the company at its meeting held during 28th-30th May 2014 It asked GNFC to first hold public hearing on the project and later submit revised EIA report incorporating issues raised during the hearing. It cited MOEF’s office memorandum dated 16th May 2014 that has banned exemptions from public hearing in such cases. 
This retrospective application of administrative order, in the true Office Office spirit, would delay GNFC’s expansion project by several months. This, in turn, would make difficult fulfillment of Government’s resolve to achieve urea self-sufficiency by 2017. 
Turn now to Sauni Yojna and a similar water project that require less than a hectare of forest land. 
Sauni (Saurashtra Narmada Avtaran Irrigation) Yojna is an innovative scheme to transfer one million acre feet of surplus flood water of Narmada to 115 irrigation dams of seven districts in Saurashtra region. The water would be transferred through four link pipe canals.
Gujarat’s Narmada, Water Resources, Water Supply and Kalpsar Department (WRD), is seeking approval for diversion of 0.272 hectare of forest land for two underground pipelines. 
In a letter dated 22nd August 2014 seeking forest clearance, a Gujarat Government engineer explains: “Project is very essential for draught prone Saurashtra region. Khatmuhurt (ground-breaking ceremony) of the project was done on dtd. 17-02-2014 by the chief minister of Gujarat at that time and prevailing Prime Minister of India. Most expeditious actions are requested to recommend and to grant the permission for right of use.”
MOEF's nodal official has returned the proposal with following queries: “1) Pl. identify suitable degraded forest land, twice the area of diversion for comp. afforestation in consultation with Dy. Conservator of Forest, Baria division, Devgadhbaria, Dist. Dahod. Prepare maps of degraded forest land selected by the DCF, Baria and upload copies (2) Give entire route (alignment) of the proposed pipe line project, including the starting & end points. Is this the only patch of forest land required ? Pl. inquire with other Territorial / Social forestry Divisions, juris.”
There would have been no need for such queries if the nodal officer had visualized that thousands of trees would crop up over 10,22,589 acres that would get irrigation water through these pipelines, leave aside the quantum jump in agricultural production. 
Take the case of a similar water project in Rajasthan. The ongoing Pokaran Falsoond Balotra Siwana Lift Water Supply Project requires diversion of only 0.289 hectares forest land. 
MOEF’s nodal officer returned the project proposal on 26th August with the observation that “You proposal is incomplete and has shortcomings. Please find herewith copy of shortcomings for necessary action.”
There are many more such public interest projects where the fulfillment of citizen’s fundamental rights is overwhelming more important than raising  technical or bureaucratic queries over a few square meters of forest land, which in case would be more than compensated, if compensatory afforestation is implemented sincerely by all stakeholders including MOEF and NGOs. 
Can Mr. Javadekar replace Office Office culture in MOEF with holistic perception about sustainable development?
 
Published by taxindiaonline.com on 10th October 2014

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