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MoEF reworks timeframes for clearances. But fundamental doubts persist about its role, processes.
The Union environment ministry continues to be regarded as one of the key stress points in delaying and even thwarting infrastructure and industrial projects. Under the guise of protecting the environment, the ministry has persisted with convoluted procedures for procuring clearances that, in fact, have not much to do with securing the habitat. Instead, they bolster the licence raj-type might of the ministry. The ministry's failure — inadvertent or deliberate — to streamline procedures and lay down guidelines that separate the environmental issues from the bureaucratic fluff has invited suspicion not only from private players, but also key infrastructure ministries. Suspicions span the entire spectrum — from outright incompetence to reform procedures, to using the contrived environment-versus-development choice to play to the activist gallery, to the retention of discretion as an avenue for rent-seeking.
That is why the ministry of environment and forests' move to introduce "realistic" timeframes for issuing clearances is intriguing. As reported in this paper on Friday, the draft Forest (Conservation) Amendment Rules, 2013, proposes increasing the time for states and the Centre to process projects that require forest clearances too. The current 150-day deadline for disposing of an application has been doubled for projects involving forest land diversion of over 100 hectares. Getting a forest clearance is seen to be especially time-consuming and uncertain, but the deadlines are proposed to become tiered to mandate quicker clearance of projects with less land diversion. To the extent that these "realistic" time frames — formulated on the basis of actual experience of deadlines overshot — could address the atmosphere of uncertainty and keep the schedule inviolate for projects with a relatively low impact on forest land, the move could be welcome. But the ministry needs to address an obvious concern, that it could also be a cover for sloth and enlarging the scope for discretion on how fast to move on a project proposal.