The central government wants to dilute environmental clearance regulations for irrigation projects and the mining of 47 minerals, including sand, marble, limestone and brick earth.

In a draft notification issued on December 18, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has proposed that projects irrigating up to 5,000 hectares be exempted from environment clearance. Currently, all projects irrigating over 2,000 hectares require the clearance from the Centre or the state government concerned.

The ministry also wants state governments to get greater responsibility for assessing environmental impact of irrigation projects. Under the proposed norms, state authorities would be able to clear projects irrigating up to 50,000 hectares instead of the current 10,000 hectares. Projects irrigating over 50,000 hectares would require clearance from the Centre.

“This is a major dilution in the environment law,” said the environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta. “Now developers can break their big irrigation projects into several parts of 5,000 hectares culturable command area [the area irrigated by a project] and get away without seeking any environment clearance for them.”

The draft notification also allows states to clear mining projects spanning up to 100 hectares, doubling the limit. This relaxation is for the 47 minerals classified as minor under the Indian mining regulations. The annual value of extracted minor minerals is estimated to be upwards of Rs 50,000 crore. Minor mineral leases above 100 hectares will require clearance from the Centre.

Environmentalists have questioned this move of “shredding the responsibility” by the environment ministry. “There are instances when state environment authorities have cleared 90-100 projects in a day without proper scientific assessment,” said Dutta, explaining that state environment authorities often lack capacity and work under political pressure while clearing the projects. “Allowing projects of this scale to be cleared by states would lead to major environmental threats.”

Senior environment ministry officials in charge of environmental clearances did not respond to’s queries about the proposal. The draft notification has been put out for public comments.
Since taking power in 2014, the Narendra Modi government has diluted several environmental clearance regulations or delegated its powers to review projects to states. Some of these dilutions have been struck down by the judiciary.

On December 8, the National Green Tribunal quashed an environment ministry notification issued in December 2016 that exempted real estate projects of built up area up to 1,50,000 sq km from environment clearance. The tribunal ruled that environmental laws, once framed, “should not be modified to the detriment of environmental protection”.

The tribunal also said the concept that existing environmental laws should not be diluted – globally known as the “Doctrine of Non-regression” – “needs to be brought into play because today environmental law is facing a number of threats such as deregulation, a movement to simplify and at the same time diminish environmental legislation perceived as too complex and an economic climate which favours development at the expense of protection of environment.”