People familiar with the matter said, the Union Environment Ministry is in the process of setting up a “single window” process for all clearances related to the forest, environment, wildlife and coastal regulation sectors. In an Office Memorandum (OM) on September 7, the ministry directed all industries, mining companies and infrastructure projects to upload digital records of the clearances granted to them in the past and the compliance of the directions issued to them under environment clearance.
“All industries in the country have been addressed through this OM. Some environmental clearances were issued 24 to 26 years ago, so their records are not digital and are often not available. Forest and wildlife clearance has been granted since the 1970s. We are asking all those records to be uploaded on the Parivesh website, which keeps records of environment, forest, wildlife, and CRZ clearances and minutes of meetings where infrastructure projects are considered for approval. This will help us to monitor whether the industries are adhering to the conditions prescribed for them or not. It will also help in cracking down on those who are not complying,” said a senior environment ministry official.
The ministry does not have the total number of projects that have been permitted by the environment ministry in the country so far. “The Forest Conservation Act came in 1980 while the Wildlife Protection Act came in 1972, so some projects may have got approval almost 40 years ago. Around 7,000 environment clearances have been issued by the Center since 1994 after the advent of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification. But there are a huge number of small industries which are monitored by state level officials, which also need to be counted and brought under a centralised system,” the official explained. In a similar memorandum on August 4, the ministry asked all Category A (large projects that require prior environmental clearance) and Category B (small projects to be monitored by state-level bodies) industries requested to upload information related to the clearances granted to them.
“It is observed that many project proponents have not uploaded the desired information yet. This has been taken seriously by the competent authority. In view of the above, all the project proponents who have not uploaded the desired information yet, are requested to once again it is requested to do this at the earliest and latest by September 13,” as per the latest office memorandum. Other senior officials of the ministry said centralized processing center (CPC green) was conceptualized recently, but the vendor for uploading all the data and making them available in an analytical format is yet to be identified.
“We have started pressurising industries to upload digital data. It will take time as some may find it difficult. The idea is that we have the approval conditions for all projects, infrastructure, industries, etc., in an analytical format. Industry will also benefit as we have conceptualised a single form for all clearances, be it environment, forest or wildlife. These will be processed in a time-bound and transparent manner,” the official said. On the government’s move to a centralised system, Nandini Choudhary, who has been a consultant for environmental clearances to various industries for more than 20 years, said: “I think this centralised system is going to increase transparency. Civil society and the public can track which industries are complying with norms and what kind of data they submit. This will put pressure on industries to shut down. That’s my impression. Also, many industries submit no data or compliance reports even though they are considered under the environmental clearance given to them. Those industries would be in the soup now.”
While a private news agency has written to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) seeking feedback on the new system, an office-bearer said they will study the OM and respond accordingly. “Such procedures can streamline the paperwork for agencies seeking prior approval, but do not assure any good environmental outcomes. Scrutiny of applications for approval, site specific monitoring and non-compliance safeguards are required. The need for feet on the ground to create resistance has become even more urgent in a post-covid, climate-challenged world. Filing and applications may need to be digitized, but it can not be an end in itself. We need regulatory reform that focuses on environmental justice, ” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher, Center for Policy Research.