Centre must protect environment while promoting development
The central government’s notification exempting mining leases from requirement of environmental clearance (EC) for two years has come under the scanner of the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Taking cognizance of a plea challenging the government notification filed by an environmentalist from Kerala, the NGT has directed the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to file its response within a month. What has been questioned is the amendment to the 2006 laws by which obtaining environment clearance was made mandatory for any project that would have an impact on the environment. In March this year the Union government carried out changes to the laws exempting mining leases from the requirement of EC for two years, apart from exempting, inter-alia, extraction of earth for linear projects such as roads and pipelines. The government’s motive in making the changes was to help the revival of mining activities and give a boost to project clearances which were hampered or delayed owing to the need for the fulfilment of requirements sought by the concerned agencies.
The EC requirement for mining leases was laid down by the Supreme Court, and as such exemption from it cannot be granted. The central government notification issued in March doing away with EC requirement had all components for misuse by unscrupulous elements as it was aimed at giving blanket nod for almost all activities. A blanket exemption goes against the ‘sustainable development’ concept, including the ‘precautionary’ principle required to be enforced by the NGT. While it is necessary that the laws governing issue of environment clearances and approvals by other central and state government agencies have to be simplified, they cannot be totally done away with even for a shorter duration. It is the responsibility of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to see that no projects or operations are allowed that have the potential to cause degradation of the environment.
The NGT decision to take cognisance of the plea challenging the March notification could lead to delay in resumption of mining in Goa even if the Supreme Court gives the nod, as ECs granted to all the leaseholders have been withdrawn or have become invalid. Obtaining a fresh EC would be a long process for the mining companies which ultimately could delay resumption of mining, unless otherwise the procedures are dispensed with by competent authorities. In February 2018 the Supreme Court had found the process adopted by the Goa government in granting second renewal to 88 mining leases wrong. Following the apex court order the mining industry was shut down. The state government has since filed a review petition and sought the nod of the top court to restart mining. Several others including local panchayats in mining areas have sought to join the state’s fight in the court. The matter is now slated to be taken up by SC for hearing on September 25.
Though the laws and approvals for various economic activities including mining do need to be simplified, the central government must allow only such changes that properly serve the cause of sustainable development. While allowing economic activities the environment cannot be harmed as economic activities cannot go on for long if the environment gets too damaged to be able to regenerate the resources needed for the economic activities. Preserving the environment means preserving the natural resources for the future generations. There is a tendency among unscrupulous elements to find loopholes in rules and regulations and extract as much as possible of the natural resources, without any regard for conservation. The government’s responsibility is to make laws to regulate businesses in order to keep unscrupulous exploitation of natural resources under check. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change should regulate, rather than deregulate, permissions for carrying out economic activities, including mining. Goa and its people have paid a heavy price for the mining operations by unscrupulous interests. The central government is duty-bound to prevent any recurrence of the similar unscrupulous activities in the mining areas. As a consequence of the restrictions on large gatherings, public hearings are not possible for collecting objections and suggestions. The central government should not use the extraordinary situation to create scope for unsustainable exploitation of resources.