India’s Environment Ministry has been making major decisions about large-scale industrial projects over short video calls as officials take their work online amid the country’s lockdown.
The sweeping changes have alarmed climate change experts.
Official panels that advise the government on whether to clear industrial projects based on their potential harm to the environment, forests and wildlife have been doing their work online since the lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus began on March 25.
This has continued even as the lockdown is eased this month, with buses and full rail services running again and some shops reopening.
Examining environmental impact assessments, reviewing concerns raised by affected people, and assessing mitigation plans properly usually require field visits and extensive consultation.
But the expert panels have been squeezing these discussions into video calls that are as short as 10 minutes per project.
“Only the project proponents are called to participate in these discussions. It’s a format that does not give an opportunity to the affected parties to give their inputs,” said environmental researcher Kanchi Kohli, referring to local conservationists and tribal representatives who may want to be involved.
The Environment Ministry gives three kinds of permits: for industrial projects that may impact air, water and soil; to divert forests; and to operate near protected wildlife.
Since the lockdown, the ministry website shows that panels have cleared 49 industrial projects. Fifteen other projects to lay transmission lines, build highways and dig canals in areas with protected wildlife were approved this month.
It also approved 197 projects that will raze forests – 62 of them in this month alone.
The projects include a controversial plan to build a new Parliament complex in Delhi and a coal mine in an elephant reserve in Assam.
Under normal circumstances, these clearances should cause worry; that they have been given during the lockdown period is atrocious.
OPPOSITION MP JAIRAM RAMESH, on the environmental clearances issued for projects, in a letter to Mr Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.
On the anvil are a highway through a wildlife sanctuary in Goa and a large hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh opposed by many local indigenous people.
The ministry has tweeted that the videoconference meetings are needed “for seamless economic growth” during the pandemic.
Mr Prakash Javadekar, the Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, is also Minister of Heavy Industries.
Since July 2014, the ministry has approved 2,286 of the 2,480 proposals that it received for environment clearance. That is an approval rate of 92 per cent.
Last month, nearly 300 environmentalists wrote to Mr Javadekar asking him to withhold clearances during the pandemic.
They warned that “the appraisals and assessments for clearance are being reduced to an empty formality”. They also urged the ministry to carry out its mandate of protecting the country’s forests, wildlife and natural heritage.
Opposition MP Jairam Ramesh, who heads a parliamentary panel on the environment, forests and climate change, said in a letter to Mr Javadekar: “Under normal circumstances, these clearances should cause worry; that they have been given during the lockdown period is atrocious.”
Despite surplus coal reserves and low power demand, the government has approved more coal mining in ecologically sensitive areas to energise the economy.
Dr Navroz Dubash, who researches energy and climate change at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said: “Instead of prioritising dirty, old and inefficient coal-powered plants again, India should see the lockdown as an opportunity for a long-term structural shift away from dirty thermal plants to cleaner coal and renewable energy.”
Even if highways, rail lines, mines and malls criss-cross sanctuaries and coastal zones, said environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta, India will still not achieve double-digit growth. “The economic advisers of the government never factored in cyclones, droughts, floods and now the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.
The ministry is also planning to change rules on how the environmental impact of infrastructure projects is assessed.
The proposed rules would exempt more projects from having to consult people whose lives they could affect. The rules also seek to decrease monitoring of approved projects and increase the duration of clearance permits.
The draft rules are open to public comments till June 30.