A National Environmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority will be created before March 31, 2014 following a Supreme Court order on Monday. The industry would be soon queuing up before a new autonomous agency to seek environment clearances under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.
The NEAMA, planned during Jairam Ramesh’s tenure as Union Environment Minister and at times referred to as National Environment Protection Authority within the Ministry, was envisaged as an autonomous body, partly inspired by the U.S. Environment Protection Agency and that of autonomous authorities in India such as the Securities and Exchange Board of India. A Cabinet note asking for the same was circulated for discussions but never made it to the Union Cabinet for a final decision.
The proposal was then buried within the Ministry even though the Supreme Court had passed an order in 2011 — referred to very often as the Lafarge judgement — ordering such an authority.
The Ministry’s interpretation remained that it was only a recommendation and not an order of the court but the Forest Bench of the apex court on Monday ruled otherwise.
Under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 almost all kind of projects require environment clearance at the state or central level. These are at present processed for recommendation by state or central level appraisal committees and then cleared by the state or central environment ministries.
The projects coming up in forest areas require a forest clearance too under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The Supreme Court’s orders on Monday would not take away the powers of the Ministry’s forest bureaucracy to clear such proposals but the implementation of the forest policy would come under the new authority’s domain.
If the NEAMA is cleared in the shape that it was proposed in 2010 the clearance process would be up for a substantial overhaul with the autonomous agency taking over command of these clearances. Besides appraising projects for green clearances, the new authority’s mandate would be to also ensure compliance of the conditions and standards laid down while giving the clearances. The central and state pollution control boards will have to be placed under the autonomous agency. In words that Mr. Ramesh had used, “The licensing functions of the Ministry will be transferred to this authority. So the Environment Ministry becomes a policy-making body, and the actual approvals or rejections, even of clearances, would be the responsibility of this independent professional organisation.”
The body as it was originally planned was to have a fulltime chairman, 6-8 full-time members, each in-charge of a thematic area, such as thermal power, major minerals and , hydel power. These were to be backed up by full-time thematic teams and subject matter divisions such as monitoring & compliance, specialised divisions on database management, economic costs, survey & research, legal and support services.
In all above 500 new people including fulltime and part time employees which would include lawyers, scientists and economists were planned to be hired. Even at that time the idea had not found favour with the Finance Ministry which had opposed creating such posts at such a scale.
The 2010 proposal of setting up the authority included self-appraisal and regulation by industry, something the industry has often asked for. It also suggested social audits of the compliance by projects that are cleared.
While it was originally proposed to create the authority through an amendment to the Environment Protection Act, 1986 the Environment Ministry would now have to take stock of how it sets up this authority before the ordered deadline of March 31, 2014.