Centre’s amnesty for green violators

Jayashree Nandi | Hindustan Times

The union environment ministry has put together an amnesty scheme for infrastructure and industrial projects that have violated environmental clearance norms.

The standard operating procedure (SOP) laid out by the ministry in an office memorandum dated July 7 states that projects that don’t have prior environmental clearance (EC) should be closed and appraised afresh.

People involved in all projects that violate environmental norms will also have to pay a penalty, according to the office memorandum, which also has a provision for demolishing industries that were never eligible for environmental clearance because of their environmental footprint.

Environmental experts, however, said such a move to regularise projects, irrespective of size, scale or impact, is purely a political move. The provisions of the new amnesty scheme are very similar to provisions of dealing with violation cases under the draft environment impact assessment notification 2020 which drew widespread public criticism last year for “post-facto” clearances.

As per the new SOPs, projects that have expanded in capacity without requisite permissions will have to revert to older production limits until reassessed. If prior EC was not required for the project but is now required under updated norms, then the project will have to restrict its production to the extent to which prior EC was not required till appraised again.

Only projects which are in complete violation of environmental norms and were never eligible for grant of environmental clearance shall be demolished or closed. For example, a highly polluting industry operating in an eco-sensitive coastal zone.

Projects that violate norms, but are “permissible”, will be assessed for the damage caused and a remediation plan developed. These projects will have to submit a bank guarantee equivalent to the remediation plan and a natural and community resource augmentation plan to the central or state pollution control boards. The bank guarantee will be released once the remediation plan is implemented.

In addition to bank guarantees for remedial measures, projects in violation of environmental norms will also have to pay a penalty. For example, new projects that have not applied for an environmental clearance and have not started operating yet will have to pay 1% of the total project cost incurred up to filing the application for EC. If a project has started operating, the people involved will have to pay 1% of the total project cost up to filing the application for EC, and 0.25% of turnover during the violation period. Penalties are similar for projects that have expanded in capacity without requisite permissions.

According to the office memorandum, the new scheme is a result of a National Green Tribunal order dated June 3, 2021 which said that “for past violations, the concerned authorities are free to take appropriate action in accordance with polluter pays principle, following due process.”

The ministry had issued a similar notification in 2017 detailing the process for appraising projects which had started operating without requisite permissions. But it was applicable for only six months.

When asked if the memorandum was an attempt to operationalise certain clauses of the draft EIA 2020 even before the notification is passed, a senior environment ministry official said: “As you can see the office memorandum has been issued in response to an NGT order. We have nothing further to add. We have referred to the NGT order in the memorandum also.”

“This will be the largest regularisation scheme for projects that have operated illegally in India and added to our total environmental and social burdens. It is understandable at one level that the government wants to do this because the environmental regulatory process has lost all legitimacy in India and thousands of projects operate in different states without any environmental approval. Even though we have environmental institutions that offer approvals on a platter, projects don’t come forward to take approvals. That must hurt the government’s sense of power and control very much,” said Manju Menon, senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research.

“Even if the government wants to bring all projects within the regulatory process, this form of blanket process, irrespective of number, scale, size, age and impacts is against environmental principles and laws. Without any background justification for such a process, it appears that the ministry is only trying to dodge the risks from growing litigation against violating projects and ineffective regulators. So this is purely an exercise in political survival,” she added.

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