First it offered star rating as an incentive to promote ease of doing business and now the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has justified/clarified it as a further step "for encouraging the efficiency, transparency and accountability" in states' functioning.
But let us start from the start.
Reiterating what has been said earlier by Environment Ministers since at least 2019, the Year Ender sent out by the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) on December 29, 2021, had a peculiar claim.
"In order to streamline the procedure for early grant of Clearances under this Ministry PARIVESH portal has been simplified for grant of Environmental Clearances, which has now been reduced to 70 working days," the Year Ender said.
It went on to explain what all changes have been brought in pursuant to the spirit of 'Digital India' and how the Ministry had, in recent times, automated various processes through PARIVESH.
"Due to the above initiatives along with other Policy reforms, the average time taken for grant of EC in all the sectors has reduced significantly from more than 150 days in 2019 to less than 90 days. In some of the sectors, the ECs are being granted even within 60 days also," a release from the Ministry said that day.
On January 18, the MoEF&CC brought out an Office Memo that offered incentives to the states through rating their respective Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) authorities based on how fast they grant clearance to projects.
Environmentalists were outraged against the OM stating it will dilute the environmental norms and encourage states to clear proposals even faster.
As per the proposed ranking system, SEIAAs will be graded between 0 and 1 on five parameters, and 0-2 on one. These include average number of days taken by an SEIAA to accept proposals before seeking environmental clearance, percentage of cases where additional information regarding a given project is sought more than once and disposal percentage for fresh or amended environmental clearance for proposals that are more than two months, among others. Each count can get up to a maximum seven stars, the OM had said.
On Monday, the MoEF&CC came out with a clarification that sought to defend its OM from last week.
It stated how the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAAs) are a very important arm of the Ministry for implementation of EIA Notification at the State level and that they have been delegated powers to consider and grant environmental clearance (EC) for all proposals under Category B.
The Ministry's statement further said: "The Ministry has taken several initiatives for streamlining the Environmental Clearance (EC) process and reduce the undue time taken in grant of clearances inter-alia complete online submission and processing of EC proposal, standard ToR for all expansion proposals, raising all queries at one go and avoiding multiple seeking essential details and/or additional details, conducting fortnightly EAC meetings, etc."
Then came the justification or clarification - as officials claimed that the OM was misinterpreted - "As a step further a new rating of SEIAAs has been introduced for encouraging the efficiency, transparency and accountability in the functioning of SEIAAs. The ranking system is based on the provisions of EIA Notification 2006 and various guidelines issued by the Ministry from time to time and designed to encourage the SEIAAs to increase their efficiency in decision making strictly as per provisions of EIA Notification 2006 without diluting any regulatory safeguards."
Stating that "it is pertinent to note that the EIA Notification already provides time-lines for all EC processes," the Ministry clarified: "However, there is no negative marking proposed for not meeting the criteria for ranking."
The number of days from seeking essential details or additional details and getting those replies would not be counted and therefore, 'the SEIAA has complete freedom to do all necessary due diligence before taking decision on project without worrying about the timeline."
"The EIA Reports are prepared as per prescribed ToRs and projects are appraised based on the same. Therefore, there is no question of EIA report quality being compromised due to the ranking system, rather it would encourage the PP/ consultants to improve the EIA quality fearing the EDS/ ADS or return of proposals," the Ministry said.
The matter may not end here as the Ministry has already issued a draft EIA Act that has proposed further drastic changes. It was circulated in 2020 and after legal hurdles, the government had extended its deadline to receive suggestions/comments from stakeholders. That time too, most of the environmental experts and activists had alleged that the Ministry is set to dilute the green clearance norms.