Earth calling MoEF

Environment ministry corrects a costly mistake, exempts brick and ordinary earth from mandatory clearances

The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has withdrawn one of its several excesses, namely, the cumbersome central regulation of brick earth. Brick earth, along with other minor minerals like sand, gravel, clay, marble and other stones, had been in short supply since 2012, because of the Supreme Court's sweeping suspension of all mining activity, prompted by reports of illegal mining in two states. But the responsibility cannot be pinned on the court alone, given that the MoEF had made a strong case for including minor minerals in a stricter regulatory ambit. Until then, states were empowered to frame their rules for these minerals. Only major minerals were subject to environmental impact assessments and clearances, and these materials were exempt unless the mining activity covered more than five hectares. But in its judgment on February 27, 2012, the SC factored in the MoEF's reservations and said that all such mining leases, in states and Union territories, would now require environment clearances from the Union ministry.

The effects of that disastrous decision rippled across the economy. Construction projects, including buildings, houses, roads and bridges, were suddenly deprived of raw material. Prices jumped, and material that was otherwise abundantly available now began to be hoarded, distorting the market further. In Punjab, 3,000 brick kilns, producing 18 crore bricks a day between them, shut shop a few months after the court order. Gravel crushers and sand mining operations also shut down. For these smallscale operations, it is near-impossible to get environmental impact assessments and clearances from the Union ministry, given how protracted and difficult the process is even for larger projects. In other words, in the name of protecting the environment, the court and ministry ended up hobbling one of the most vital industries, shutting down small kilns, affecting livelihoods. It centralised and complicated regulation, instead of letting states balance their own concerns of growth and environmental impact. Neither the court nor the ministry seemed to realise how consequential these decisions were, and how they hampered efforts to get the economy back on a higher growth path.

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