PMO pulled out all stops to weaken eco, forest norms

11:17 AM, Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Forest-NormsNew Delhi: The Prime Minister’s office has repeatedly ordered and orchestrated dilution of environment and forest clearances in order to fast-pace industrial projects, documents with The Hindu show.

In a series of orders and missives sent to the Union Environment and Forests Ministry over 2012-2013, the PMO instructed that regulations and norms had to be diluted or done away with. These included application of the United Progressive Alliance’s much touted pro-tribal law to the clearance process — the Forest Rights Act.

At times some of these changes were ordered on the direct instructions of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and required time-bound compliance by the Ministry, documents and correspondence show. To ensure dilutions, the PMO ordered that a committee be set up with a pre-meditated outcome of rolling back the specific regulations.

The orders were sent to the Ministry by Pulok Chatterjee, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, and other, more junior officials. Most of these were followed up and complied with, though some were opposed in parts for various reasons.

The PMO recommended that the requirement of environmental clearance for projects worth up to Rs. 500 crore be done away with entirely. Projects worth up to Rs. 1,000 crore should be evaluated only at State level and should not come to the Union government for clearance.

The PMO also asked that all buildings, real estate projects and Special Economic Zones be taken out of the purview of environmental clearance. It asked that expansion of capacity up to 25% for mining projects be done automatically without any public hearing.

On forest clearances, the PMO asked that projects requiring up to 40 hectare of forests, instead of the then existing limit of four hectare, be handled by regional offices of the Ministry. Instead of having one Forest Advisory Committee, several statutory panels should be set up across the country to become the final deciding authorities, the PMO said.

It demanded that the handing back of rights over forests to tribals under the Forest Rights Act be not verified before hiving off forestland to industries. The UPA’s flagship law for tribals disallows changing ownership of forestland until after the people’s rights have been settled. To put the forest clearance regulations in alignment with the FRA, the government altered the rules to ensure compliance.

In another letter to the Environment Minister, the Principal Secretary asked that a committee be set up to recommend dilution of some of the norms which were discussed earlier. The dilution was dictated, only the justification to do so was left to the committee.

The dilution meant exemption for buildings and real estates from environmental clearance, exemption for NHAI (National Highways Authority of India) and other road expansion projects up to a width of 60 metres and 200 km, and withdrawal of the norm on the height and width of roads linked to fire safety.

Easing of norms for the SEZs was done as desired by the PMO. Through an office memorandum the Environment Ministry ordered that public hearings for individual projects within the SEZs be done away with. A committee was set up to look at various issues the PMO had raised and it delivered the results as demanded, leading the Ministry to dilute the norms.

On direct instructions of the Prime Minister, the Ministry was informed that the panel to review the Madhav Gadgil report on the Western Ghats should be headed by Planning Commission member K. Kasturirangan and should include the Joint Secretary or higher officials from the Urban Development and Road Transport and Highways Ministries.

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