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Supreme Court wants regulator for environmental clearances of projects

NEW DELHI: In a major blow to the Centre's election year decision to speed up environmental clearance to long pending projects, the Supreme Court on Monday ordered the government to appoint a national regulator which would take up comprehensive environmental impact assessment (EIA) of projects.

Brushing aside the Centre's opposition to a national regulator, a bench of Justice AK Patnaik, Justice SS Nijjar and Justice FMI Kalifulla said the super regulator was the need of the hour as the present mechanism "is deficient in many respects". This would bring an end to rapid EIAs, conducted earlier by the ministry of environment and forest (MoEF), for important projects.

"What is required is a regulator at the national level having its offices in all the states which can carry out an independent, objective and transparent appraisal and approval of projects for environmental clearances and which can also monitor the implementation of the conditions laid down in environmental clearances," the bench said.

The Congress leadership had recently decided to ease out Jayanthi Natarajan as environment minister after it felt that many projects had been stalled due to cumbersome environmental clearance, which had been kept pending for years. Veerappa Moily, who was given charge of ministry of environment and forest, had said he would try to speed up the process for EIA clearance.

The court asked the government to set up the national regulator with head office at Delhi and branches in as many states as possible by March 31 and file an affidavit of compliance by April 7, the next date for hearing of the case.

Asking the regulator not to encroach into the Centre's powers under the 
Environment (Protection) Act, the bench said while exercising powers under the EPA, the national regulator would "ensure that the National Forest Policy, 1988 is duly implemented".

This means, not only the regulator would examine the feasibility of the project from the environment protection angle, that is the pollution and its effects on the surroundings, it would also examine the ill-effects of the project on forest covers and possible cutting down of trees.

The court had first suggested setting up of a national regulator more than two years ago in its order dated July 6, 2011 in the case relating to stage-I forest clearance to mining project of Lafarge Umiam Mining Private Ltd in Meghalaya.

In that order the apex court had said: "Section 3 of the EPA confers a power coupled with duty, and thus it is incumbent on the central government to appoint an appropriate authority, preferably in the form of a regulator, at the state and at the central level for ensuring implementation of National Forest Policy, 1988."

The court had said, "We are of the view that, the central government should appoint a national regulator for appraising projects, enforcing environmental conditions for approvals and to impose penalties on polluters." It had also faulted the MoEF's rapid EIA to give faster clearance to important projects.

Times View

The Supreme Court's idea of having a national regulator for environmental impact assessment (EIA) of projects is about more than just insulating the process from political interference. This takes judicial activism in environment to the level of effecting a system change.

The appraisal of projects for environmental clearance will not any more depend on the attitude of the incumbent minister. While there have been cases of the government misusing its powers to allow rapid EIA, the proposed regulator raises fears of major projects being held up for long periods.

Despite its disclaimers about keeping away from the policy domain, this is another clear instance of the Supreme Court chipping away at the executive domain.

The Times of India (07-01-2014)