The story so far: In early 2022, the Union Environment Ministry relaxed regulations to allow mining companies to increase production by up to 50% without needing to hold public hearings, which was a key requirement for the environmental clearance process. According to a report by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the move followed extensive lobbying by the Vedanta group in 2021 when the world and India was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Which restrictions were removed?
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change eased regulations to allow mining companies to increase production by up to 50% without needing to hold public hearings. Public consultations are where local people raise their concerns about how an expansion would impact their lives and livelihoods. Many in the industry considered this the most “onerous” requirement of the clearance process.
The Environment Ministry also published an amendment to the country’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) law in early 2020 that exempted oil and gas exploration projects from having to hold public hearings. The change also downgraded the risk ratings of these projects, meaning they only had to be given the green light by State authorities, rather than by experts in the Environment Ministry. The recent amendments to the forest conservation law too ensure that explorers will get prompt access to thousands of square kilometres of deemed forest areas for seismic surveys by obviating the need for time-consuming permits.
Why were the curbs lifted?
The OCCRP report claims that the restrictions were removed following lobbying by mining giant Vedanta group whose chairperson Anil Agarwal in a letter to then Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar in January 2021, said the government could add “impetus” to India’s “rapid” economic recovery by allowing mining companies to boost production by up to 50% without having to secure new environmental clearances. The mining industry had already spent years before the pandemic trying to scrap regulations that required new environmental approvals when companies increased production.
Loosening environmental regulations for miners wasn’t the company’s only successful lobbying campaign. One of the company’s subsidiaries, Cairn Oil & Gas, also started lobbying to scrap public hearings for oil exploration projects. As with mining, the government quietly amended the law with no public consultation. Since then, at least six of Cairn’s oil projects in the northern deserts of Rajasthan have been approved for development.
What are environmental experts saying?
Environmental experts claim the government approved the changes without public consultation. The environment ministry changed the mining regulations by publishing an office memo — meant to be used for inter-office communication — on its website. By modifying important regulations using instruments like office memos, without any public debate, the government may have skirted the law, according to a study of pandemic-era regulatory changes by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.
Why is Vedanta’s lobbying being questioned?
Though the head of a major industry lobby group and India’s mining secretary also pressed for the rules to be loosened, internal documents and government sources suggest Vedanta’s lobbying was key, the report says.
OCCRP found evidence that Vedanta has been an important donor to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Two entities linked to a Vedanta subsidiary gave ₹43.5 crore to the party between 2016 and 2020, according to contribution reports filed with the Election Commission by the BJP and one of the entities. The donations from just one of these trusts, Bhadram Janhit Shalika, put it in the top 10 donors to the BJP between the fiscal years 2016-2017 and 2021-22, according to data compiled by the Association for Democratic Reforms. The amount could be more because Vedanta has also made political donations through electoral bonds.
What about India’s goals on climate change?
India is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, and its ability to regulate its heavy industries is crucial to the global effort to combat climate change. The EIA is an important part of the mitigation hierarchy, a tool used to limit the amount of damage an action, such as a development of a new mine, will have on the environment.