Green norms eased for roads

New Delhi, Feb. 5: The Union environment and forests ministry today relaxed key requirements for projects that fit certain criteria, and minister Jayanthi Natarjan asserted that her department should not be viewed as creating bottlenecks to development.

The ministry announced that proposals for so-called "linear projects" such as canals, pipelines, roads or transmission lines that do not affect the rights of primitive tribal groups or hunter-gather communities would be exempted from obtaining the consent of gram sabhas or village councils.

Under existing rules on diversion of forest land for non-forest activities, proponents of projects are expected to provide information about their proposals to local communities, hold public hearings and obtain the consent of each affected gram sabha.

"We're trying to streamline procedures," Natarajan said. The ministry's decision, she said, is in line with recommendations of an inter-ministerial panel and the tribal affairs ministry.

"We're introducing parallel processing of proposals for environmental clearance and forest clearance, we've cleared all proposals that can be cleared," Natarajan said.

The environment ministry has also granted "general approval" to all public infrastructure projects if they require less than five hectares of forest land and are located in any of the districts affected by Left-wing extremism.

"There are some wrong notions I want to correct," Natarajan said. The ministry, she said, shouldn't be seen as holding up the nation's progress.

"True development can only be sustainable development that sustains and protects the environment."

She said her ministry was responsible for approving only projects that required diversion of more than 40 hectares of forest land. These account for only 9 per cent of all projects.

State governments approve projects that need less than five hectares, or 74 per cent of the projects, and the Union ministry's regional offices approve the balance 17 per cent of the plans.

The ministry said only 101 projects requiring diversion of about 57,400 hectares were pending for forest clearance. These include 16 road projects that need 1,952 hectares and five transmission line projects of over 320 hectares.

While sections of the government have in the past bemoaned that the environment ministry is delaying development projects, environmental activists have accused the ministry of laxity in approvals. An NGO last week released a report saying the ministry had approved 260 of 262 hydroelectric and irrigation proposals over the past six years.