Plan afoot to 'unlock' public hearings for green clearance

Five months after the process was stalled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Centre is looking to resume environmental public hearings - a requirement for all major projects that need green clearance.

Agencies
New Delhi: Five months after the process was stalled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Centre is looking to resume environmental public hearings - a requirement for all major projects that need green clearance. ET gathers that advanced discussions are ongoing between the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to work out a format for holding public hearings despite the pandemic situation. On the table are plans for a ‘shift-wise’ public hearing mechanism to ensure physical distancing among participants during the process which typically involves large gatherings.

“The environment ministry is in the process of seeking the MHA’s nod for conducting the public hearing in such a format or any other feasible process keeping Covid-19 concerns in mind. We plan to work out something soon as our expert committees are already meeting and considering projects for clearances,” RP Gupta, the secretary at the environment ministry, told ET. While there is no consolidated figure on the number of pending public hearings, officials said it would be significant. Numerous infrastructure projects are said to be held up pending public hearing. Public hearings are a key part of the environment clearance/approval process for a huge number of industrial, infrastructure and mining projects.

Under the mechanism, people who may be affected in the area where the proposed project is to come up are invited for public hearings where they may share their concerns and objections with officials of the state pollution control board, the district magistrate and executives from the industry or project. These are recorded and considered by an expert committee in the environment ministry before deciding on giving a green signal to the project. Since the lockdown, public hearings are largely on hold as they attract a large number of people, making it difficult to manage physical distancing.


Any large gathering is also seen as a violation of the Covid-19 guidelines by the Centre. Even after the Unlock, the MHA has not allowed any large gatherings. Even wedding receptions as well as funerals have a gathering limit of 20-50 people. In July, the Telangana High Court had directed the state government to postpone a public hearing on a project pending green clearance, saying that it would be violative of Centre’s directions on Covid-19.

In other cases where some states or district administrations have attempted holding public hearings, many local people have expressed their inability to come for the hearing in view of the Covid-19 scare. For instance, the Gujarat Pollution Control Board had scheduled many such hearings in June-July but faced objections on grounds of the risks of the pandemic. A video-conference mode of public hearing is hardly suited to most projects which fall in remote areas or which require greater public deliberation, it is felt.
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