India Offers Six-Month Window to Environmental Permit Violators

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By Madhur Singh

Potentially thousands of construction projects underway in India without the necessary environmental paperwork have been given six-month grace periods to obtain environmental permits, India announced.

The offer is available for projects—all of them technically illegal—that started on-site work without permits or later expanded production without getting revised approval, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change announced.

The government wants to bring “such projects and activities in compliance with the environmental laws at the earliest point of time, rather than leaving them unregulated and unchecked,” the ministry said.

India’s National Green Tribunal disallowed a similar amnesty effort by the government made through administrative order two years ago.

But the tribunal in that ruling made a distinction between administrative and legislative orders, which get more deference. Notifications like this one are considered “subordinate legislation” in India, it explained.

Businesses that fail to obtain the necessary environmental permits by Sept. 14—six months after the March 14 notification— could face 500,000 rupees ($7,600) fines, additional fines of up to 5,000 rupees a day for continued violations, and potential jail time for those responsible.

Appraised by Federal Ministry

All applications for environmental permits made under this six-month offer will be reviewed by the federal Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, and not the regional offices that would normally handle applications.

“The idea is to take away the economic benefit (if any) derived by the company due to violation and pay for the remediation of damage caused due to violation,” the ministry said in its statement.

But some environmental groups said the notification—(S.O 804 (E))—favors businesses by helping them avoid facing lawsuits.

“It is unfair because if someone builds a house illegally, you tear it down. But if a business is built illegally, you let them pay a fine and get on with it,” Nandikesh Sivalingam, a campaigner with the Indian chapter of Greenpeace, told Bloomberg BNA.

“One has to consider why a business would have started operations without a permit in the first place,” Sivalingam said. “No amount of money can substitute for the environmental damage caused and for what has been lost.”

‘Meaningless Exercise’

Over the last decade, the process of issuing environmental permits has come under heightened public scrutiny in India, with local residents and civil society actors challenging the violations in courts.

There have even been instances of big-ticket investments being canceled, but the problem of unpermitted construction is rampant in parts of the country.

Sanjay Upadhyay, a managing partner at New Delhi-based Enviro Legal Defense Firm, called the six-month grace period “a meaningless exercise.”

“When there is just one ministry among so many that is tasked with protecting the environment, and that ministry joins all others in making it easier to do business, I think we’re losing the plot,” Upadhyay told Bloomberg BNA by telephone March 17.

To contact the reporter on this story: Madhur Singh in Chandigarh, India, at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

For More Information

The Ministry of Environment environmental clearance notification is available, in Hindi and English, at http://src.bna.com/m4K.

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