A signatory to the Stockholm Declaration (1972) on Environment, India enacted laws to control water (1974) and air (1981) pollution soon after. But it was only after the Bhopal gas leak disaster in 1984 that the country legislated an umbrella Act for environmental protection in 1986.
All inland waterways projects and expansion/widening of national highways — two focus areas of the government and championed by Nitin Gadkari, the minister in charge of the sectors concerned — will be exempt from prior clearance. These include roads that cut through forests and dredging of major rivers.
The 2020 draft also exempts most building construction projects of built-up area up to 1,50,000 sq m. This is a reiteration of the Environment Ministry’s December 2016 notification that was set aside by the National Green Tribunal in December 2017. The government subsequently moved the Supreme Court but did not get any relief.
The two most significant changes in the new draft are the provisions for post-facto project clearance and abandoning the public trust doctrine. Projects operating in violation of the Environment Act will now be able to apply for clearance. It is a reiteration of a March 2017 notification for projects operating without clearance.
All a violator will need are two plans for remediation and resource augmentation corresponding to 1.5-2 times “the ecological damage assessed and economic benefit derived due to violation”. For such late applications, a developer will have to cough up Rs 2,000-10,000 per day for the period of delay. Consider the impact of this penalty on, say, an illegal sand miner who takes out several truckloads every day.