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Environmental Clearances for a variety of developmental projects are critical in preserving our natural resources including forests, minerals, biodiversity, water sources, etc. It is a process that involves obtaining a nod from the government for certain types of projects that are to be developed or modified or expanded. The importance of environmental clearances becomes manifold when they are sought near or within protected areas, as giving a go ahead to environmentally destructive projects can cause irreparable damages and disturb our fragile ecosystems. Environmental Clearances hold a special significance for financing of projects, as it is mandatory for the sanctioning of finances from banks and other financial institutions.

India is home to 89,000 species of animals and 46,000 species of plants and nearly half the world’s aquatic plants. Conservation of wild flora and fauna has been one of the key thrust areas for India. Protected Areas have been declared with the primary objective of biodiversity conservation and they often exclude resource extraction and use by local communities. Under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, four categories of Protected Areas have been designated in India. Protected Areas in India comprise national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and conservation and community reserves. According to National Wildlife Data Cell, as of March 2021, India has a network of 981 Protected Areas including 104 National Parks, 566 Wildlife Sanctuaries, 97 Conservation Reserves and 214 Community Reserves covering a total of 1,71,921 sq. km. of geographical area of the country which is approximately 5.03%.

While the National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries serve the purpose of protection of wildlife, National Parks have much higher levels of restriction in terms of human entry and no human activity, such as foraging and collection of firewood from fringe areas is allowed within National Parks, though Wildlife Sanctuaries allow a few such activities. Forest dwelling communities and tribal communities have been residing within or near protected areas for centuries, but they have been facing evictions from the protected areas in the name of conservation and often being displaced despite their rightful ownership under The Forest Rights Act 2006. However, at the same time forest land in these protected areas have been diverted for various projects.

According to the MOEFCC Guidelines, any activity involving use or diversion of protected areas may be considered only under “most exceptional” circumstances. Additionally, any project requiring environmental clearance or any activity within 10 kilometers of a national park or sanctuary needs the permission of the NBWL. The inherent ambiguity in the existing guidelines have failed to prevented diversion of forest land in protected areas despite the best of intentions.

As per India’s environmental laws, since the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 came into force, various industrial and infrastructure projects such as mining, highways, power plants, ports, dams have to go through a detailed process involving public hearing and an appraisal by expert committees in order to be granted environmental clearance, laying down the conditions to be followed to ensure least possible damage if the projects are given a go ahead. Such projects were first brought under regulation through EIA notification 1994 which was then updated with the EIA notification 2006 to reflect the required changes.

Between 2006 and 2020, the 2006 notification had gone through 53 amendments and over 200 office orders. In March 2020, Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MOEFCC) came out with a Draft EIA Notification 2020 which was censured heavily by the environmentalists and the public as it was mired with issues such as reduction in the time period allotted for public hearings, the extended time given for submission of compliance reports, and regularization of projects through ‘post-facto clearance’. Even though the final notification has not yet been published, even before several projects in the category of railway projects, metro projects, and large realty projects have been exempted from seeking environmental clearance, with linear infrastructure projects such as railway and highway projects even cutting through protected areas. The protected areas have been threatened since several years due to a lackadaisical approach towards issuing environmental clearances, often in the name of public interest or “bringing development”.

While there are some safeguards in place for international financial institutions, most Indian financial institutions lack a framework for Environmental and Social safeguards. In such a scenario, the environmental regulator, i.e. Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC) has a tremendous responsibility of preserving the environment. But unfortunately, over the last few years hundreds of projects have been given environmental clearances near protected areas and a few of them have been within the protected areas itself.

Some insights into the length and breadth of environmental clearances near or within protected areas across the country

As per the data provided by Parivesh portal of MOEFCC and IndiaSpend website, a total of 225 developmental projects had been given clearances between the year 2015 and 2019, which are located within the range of 10 kms of designated protected areas.[1] These projects are related to mining, construction projects (residential and industrial), infrastructure projects, manufacturing units, chemical plants, etc. The project proponents for these projects are individuals, private companies, publicly listed companies, government enterprises and some other institutions. There were clearances given for new projects as well as expansion of some of the existing projects. It is important to bring to attention that 37 of these projects were located within the territory of protected areas, which shows the callousness of the regulators towards protecting our precious habitats.

Given below is the year-wise segregation of the clearances for the projects between 2015 and 2019:

Year No. of Projects given clearances
2015 56
2016 49
2017 49
2018 33
2019 38

The maximum number of clearances in the selected period was in the year 2015, i.e. 56 clearances, while the year 2018 registered the minimum number of clearances, i.e. 33 clearances.

The projects are spread over multiple categories, which are classified according to the criteria set by MOEFCC.

Given below is category-wise distribution of the projects which were given clearances:

Sl. No. Project Category* No. of Projects States/UTs
1. Coal Mining 9 Jharkhand, Odisha, Maharashtra, West Bengal
2. Industrial Projects – 1 26 Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Jammu Kashmir, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, West Bengal
3. Industrial Projects – 2 41 Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand
4. Infrastructure and Miscellaneous Projects + CRZ 74 Andaman & Nicobar, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttarakhand
5. New Construction Projects and Industrial Estates 43 Bihar, Goa, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Madhya PradeshMaharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand
6. Non-Coal Mining 30 Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand
7. River Valley and Hydroelectric Projects 1 Karnataka
8. Thermal Projects 1 Madhya Pradesh

*The types of projects under various categories can be accessed at:  http://environmentclearance.nic.in/writereaddata/project_activity.pdf

As it can be seen from the table above, the maximum projects have been in the category of “Infrastructure and Miscellaneous Projects + CRZ”, i.e. 74 projects, followed by 67 projects in Industrial Projects category (combining Industrial Projects – 1 and Industrial Projects – 2). 39 mining projects (including 9 coal mining projects) had been given clearances. There are various types of projects under each project category. For example, in the category ‘Infrastructure and Miscellaneous Projects + CRZ’, the following types of projects are included:

i) Air ports

ii) All ship breaking yards including ship breaking units

iii) Common hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facilities (TSDFs)

iv) Ports, Harbours

v) Highways

vi) Aerial ropeways

vii) Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs)

viii) Common Municipal Solid Waste Management Facility (CMSWMF)

Among the 225 projects, 155 projects were classified as New Projects, while the remaining 70 projects were classified under Expansion or Modernization.

These projects spread all across India have been in proximity of various protected areas with some states having a larger share of these clearances.

Given below is a break up of state-wise environmental clearances between 2015 and 2019:

Sl. No. State/UTs No. of Projects
1. Andaman & Nicobar 7
2. Andhra Pradesh 8
3. Arunachal Pradesh 2
4. Bihar 5
5. Goa 2
6. Gujarat 26
7. Haryana 5
8. Himachal Pradesh 7
9. Jammu & Kashmir 5
10. Jharkhand 11
11. Karnataka 7
12. Kerala 1
13. Madhya Pradesh 2
14. Maharashtra 66
15. Mizoram 1
16. Odisha 8
17. Punjab 4
18. Rajasthan 10
19. Sikkim 2
20. Tamil Nadu 14
21. Telangana 4
22. Uttar Pradesh 2
23. Uttarakhand 22
24. West Bengal 4

It can be observed from the above table that more than 50% of the clearances were given for projects in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu with Maharashtra having a maximum number of 66 clearances.

The 225 projects fulfilling the criteria for analysis are close to 90 protected areas (and a few within the protected areas itself). Among them 50% of the projects are spread over just 11 protected areas, the details of which are mentioned below:

 Sl. No. Protected Area State No. of Projects
1. Sanjay Gandhi (Borivili) National Part Maharashtra 43
2. Rajaji National Park Uttarakhand 17
3. Karnala Bird Sanctuary Maharashtra 9
4. Wild Ass Wildlife Sanctuary Gujarat 9
5. Marine National Park, Gulf of Kutch Gujarat 6
6. Jambughoda Wildlife Sanctuary Gujarat 6
7. Sagareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary Maharashtra 6
8. Simbalbara National Park Himachal Pradesh 6
9. Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary Jharkhand 5
10. Guindy National Park Tamil Nadu 5
11. Gulf Of Mannar Marine National Park Tamil Nadu 5

The granting of environmental clearances and wildlife clearances become some of the key enablers in the process of projects getting implemented near or within protected areas. However, at the same time, the focus should also come on the investors and financiers behind these projects, whether be it commercial banks, private equity, non-banking financial companies or International Financial Institutions (IFIs), as without their involvement such projects would not be possible. Even the financing of projects through budgetary allocations, such as highway projects, should be looked into as one of the key financing mechanisms. This also entails the question of the dire need of Environmental and Social Safeguards in the functioning of financial institutions and the need of accountability of such institutions towards the environment.

While going through the above data for the time period 2015 to 2019, it should be taken into account that there have been clearances given to projects near protected areas in the previous years too and the trend is still continuing. Hence, the cumulative impacts which these protected areas have to bear due to environmentally-destructive projects would be much more than what is reflected here. There needs to be a stricter monitoring of the projects being given clearances close to protected areas. With the threat of draft EIA Notification 2020 coming into effect in the near future, the challenge of saving these fragile ecosystems would be much more in front of us. The role of protected areas and forests in combating the looming climate crisis has grown manifold in the last few decades and they would hold a much higher importance in the coming future. The failure of the government in preserving our fragile protected areas and forests also raises questions on its commitment towards addressing the climate crisis, especially when India has been one of the signatories of 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, along with being one of the earliest signatories of Convention on Biological Diversity (CDB) and its commitment towards UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13 on climate action.

[1] It should be noted that IndiaSpend website displays a total of 277 projects for the time period between 2015 and 2019, which are within 10 kms range of protected areas, including 40 projects within the protected areas themselves, which have been compiled from the Parivesh portal. However, on the IndiaSpend website as on July 08, 2021, details of only 225 projects are available and hence the analysis has been done only of those projects. 

Picture courtesy: Sumit Gupta/Flickr

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