Express View on the balance between environment and industry: Greening growth – DollarJob

Express View on the balance between environment and industry: Greening growth

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Governments in developing countries face a dilemma, a political-economy conundrum that requires a fine balancing act. On the one hand, in light of climate change and the degradation of fragile and vulnerable ecologies, there is a need for regulation of projects that have a potentially adverse environmental impact. On the other hand, investment and infrastructure development are crucial for employment generation and poverty alleviation.

The provision of Environmental Clearance (EC) under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) rules — notified in 2006 under the Environmental (Protection) Act — was meant to strike the right balance between the imperatives of growth and development and the environment. The EC is meant to be mandatory for various projects, including mining, thermal plants, those in river valleys, and infrastructure and industrial programmes. Unfortunately, as a report in this newspaper has shown, the balance between environment and industry seems to be tilting far too much towards the latter.

In 2017, the government brought in a loophole to the EIA and gave a six-month moratorium to all the companies that had not complied with the requirements to receive an EC. This one-time window was made indefinite under the revised Standard Operating Procedures in 2021. The notification was challenged before the Madras High Court, which granted a stay order. The Centre, however, interpreted the order as applying only to Tamil Nadu. Then, in January 2024, the Supreme Court stayed the notification, and the Court’s final decision is pending. In essence, between 2017 and 2024, over 100 projects — they include coal, iron and bauxite mines, steel and iron factories, cement plants and limestone quarries — have been granted ex post facto environmental clearance under the diluted EIA, their original lack of EC notwithstanding.

Environmental clearances for business and infrastructure projects have been a fraught issue for decades. Under multiple governments and environment ministers of varying ideological leanings, the pendulum has swung both ways: At different points, the Environment Ministry has been dubbed either “anti-business” or “anti-environment”. However, by any standard, the weakening of the EIA, and the National Green Tribunal, is a matter of deep concern that needs to be addressed urgently — in 2020, an Environmental Performance Index of Yale University ranked India 168 amongst 220 countries. Perhaps the only sustainable way to do this is to not see “environment” and “development” locked in an inevitably zero-sum game.

It’s time to move to environmentalism as development and development as environmentalism. As climate change and sustainability increasingly become a part of the global business conversation, India has the opportunity to be a leader in this regard. This will, however, require a robust policy and regulatory framework, which while facilitating business, allows for a careful assessment of the adverse impacts of projects, and does not constantly search for and seize the loopholes.



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