A long-standing joke in eco-activist circles, reflecting a rather bitter cynicism, is that no one has yet informed the babus at the Ministry for Environment and Forests that 'environmental clearance' doesn't mean granting permission to 'clear' forests! Now it seems that perhaps the environment minister herself needs to be informed of the same. Jayanthi Natarajan has relaxed environmental clearance norms for projects requiring diversion/clearance of forest land, reversing her predecessor's efforts (however uneven) to keep the the diversion of forests as a last resort option.
In an amendment of an order passed on March 31 requiring projects to obtain forest clearance before being eligible for environmental clearance, developers can now seek environmental clearances even as their application for forest diversion is under consideration. The ministry feels that by asking project developers to submit proof that they have applied for forest clearance, they will minimise misuse of this new guideline, but in a country where "supporting documents" can literally be bought, one is left to wonder at the ministry's naivete.
Project developers are to be given a period of 12 months, "which may be extended in exceptional circumstances to 18 months", to submit their stage I or in-principle forest clearance after they have been informed of the decision on environmental clearance. If the project fails to get the forest clearance in the stipulated 12 to 18 months, the environmental clearance will lapse and developers would be required to go through the clearance process all over again. The new guidelines are especially troubling in a country where we have seen time and again that neither court orders nor lack of clearances hold project developers back from starting construction. Often, by the time the environment/forest clearances are obtained or denied, the project infratsurcture is almost ready and much of the damage already done.
Natarajan's predecessor, J. Ramesh has initiated the policy of 'go and no-go' areas areas for mining. Now a group of ministers headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, has pressurised the MoEF to scrap this policy, saying that it has no legal basis. In some consolation to environmentalists, the government has asked the Forest Survey of India to identify 'pristine' forets where mining under no circumstances will be allowed. However, while stressing that this demarcation will be done on a 'scientific' basis, no time frame has been set for this survey to be completed. Currently, the Forest Advisory Committee will consider held-up projects, particularly coal mining projects, and clear them on a case-by-case basis.
Till date, the Forest Advisory Committee has been seen to do its job of protecting our remaining forests with some rigour -- since 2010, when the go/no-go policy came into effect, it has refused permission for coal projects in 209 coal blocks. Forest areas where mining was not allowed formed 44 % of the country's total forest area but this was reduced to 29% at the intervention of the PM's office.
Senior ministry officials were at pains to iterate that the new order was not a reversal or relaxation of environmental clearance norms, but merely a 'simplification' of the March 31 order.