Forest clearance or sweeping issues?

This month has barely started and news has trickled in many shades on pages of TOI, The Hindu, Economic Times and others narrating how environment clearances are flying fast for many long due permissions.

You may be tempted to think of these slew of green-nods as paper planes suddenly being airborne and stirring a lot of noise. This January, the Ministry of Coal incidentally issuedGreenpeace Action mahan coal-block allottees a few weeks to show cause on delays and warning of deallocation that led companies scampering for clearances with district and state officials’ collusion as has been pointed in some reports.

What is interesting is that for Tata Steel and Adhunik Power and Natural Resource Limited (APNRL) that were jointly allotted 237 ha Ganeshpur coal-block in Latehar district in May 2009, there was a hard-to-miss resentment in Jala village, where predominantly Oraon tribal villagers had refused to give consent to allow coal mining till their pending forest rights claims were settled first, and even cited threats being received for opposing the mining project. Of course, the allegations were of the nature that the companies denied and clearances rolled in.

Juxtapose this now to how an environment ministry circular of August 2009 requires that all FRA claims must have been settled in an area and the gram sabha should have given their consent before any forest land is diverted to industry.

As per some news reels, the Deputy Development Commissioner acting as the ad-hoc District Commissioner had rejected Jala’s villagers community forest rights claims over 456 hectares forest pending since 2011.

The government has meanwhile granted environment clearance for as many as 12 coal mines in the past two months, apparently after scrutinising conditions fulfilled.

Does it matter that one of the blocks is the Mahan coal mine in Madhya Pradesh,wherein Essar Energy has received forest clearance for the Mahan coal block while villagers of Singrauli district were mulling protests against forest clearance given to a joint venture of Essar Power Ltd and Hindalco Industries Ltd to mine coal at Mahan forests.

The idea is to not allow Mahan forests in Singrauli to be felled by Essar for coal mining in spite of the stage II forest clearance granted by minister of environment and forests Veerappa Moily.

It has been argued that the clearances trample over the rights of several thousands of people, who have been dependant on forests for their livelihood for generations.

In the latest turn of events, it is being drummed up how government is in the process of digitising all green clearances so that investors can go online to apply and track the status of their clearances.

The green clearances portal is said to reduce the time for bagging environment and forest nods before executing infrastructure and industrial projects, and instilling more accountability among officers via a vis each stage of the clearance approval process.

As per the environmental impact assessment norms of 2006 and the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, an application for EC or FC is to be processed within 300 days.

Can the differing interpretations of what applicants need to do under the law be mitigated by digitising checklists? Can technology help in bringing transparency and conscience to the system being plagued with the paradox of delays and neglect of other stakeholders? Now that question needs a nod too.


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