Environmental Clearance in Maharashtra - Mired in Controversy!

 
It has been 10 years since the first EIA notification of 2006 was published by Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), at that time. This Notification was critical to the Real estate industry as it categorically laid down the requirements of Environmental Clearance for any construction more than 20,000 sq m. The Environmental Clearance (EC) requirement was actually called as the Prior EC, which was to be applied for and granted prior to a project getting constructed on site.

Since then, the EC and its process took some time getting in to the construction process, which was already fraught with Building Sanctions from the local authority. However, it can be said that by 2008-2009, most of the medium to big projects started adhering to the requirements of environmental scrutiny.

The requirements of a Prior EC created its own problems and the State and the Centre vacillated regarding the interpretation of the 2006 Notification. As a result, we find, particularly in Maharashtra, that we have a long list of project that are termed as Violation projects.

During the period from 2008 to 2014, as more and more projects applied for EC, there was a long waiting time. In some cases, projects waited for almost 2 years before the project was first heard by the State appointed Environmental Appraisal Committee (SEAC). This was of course, unacceptable and hence we find that the violation List is particularly long during this period, as Developers chose to violate the EC notification than face the wrath of customers or default on the loans that they had availed for the project. It just didn't make economic sense to wait for two years to face environment scrutiny!

In 2014, with a new Committee in place and the efforts of the Central government towards 'Ease of Business' the State department and the committee members worked to bring down the pendency of projects. The MOEFCC will be happy to note that today, there is no pendency with the SEAC in Maharashtra, making it possibly the smoothest and cleanest process in the real estate sector.

With the preparation of the Model Building Bye Laws of 2016, this picture is going to change completely. The Central government departments, the MOUD and the MOEFCC have come together to frame/suggest bye laws that will incorporate environmental conditions as a part of the Building regulations. This move suggests that since the other Building regulations are controlled by the Local Municipal governments, the compliance of Environmental regulations will also be decentralized to the civic authorities. The State will merely enact a GR or make amendments to the Maharashtra Regional &Town Planning (MR&TP) Act to this effect and the Municipal authorities will have to set up mechanisms to check environmental compliance.

As an environmental consultant in the field for the past 10 years, my critical observations on the entire EC process and the suggested new process are as follows:

1. The State government was doing a good job and most of the issues like Water availability, energy feasibility and operational concerns like waste management were being checked by the SEAC. I have found that the EC process made Developers and consultants in the Real estate sector realize (possibly for the first time) that you cannot put up a project where there is no water available. Otherwise, developers were building projects and buyers were buying properties in these projects which had no source of water.

2. Despite irregularities that we observed in the Building sanctions process at the Municipal level, the SEAC brought in a fair and a reasonable check to the entire system of building sanction. No doubt, it was restricted only for projects larger than 20,000 sq m, but nonetheless, Developers had to ensure that all project documentation was, in the least, consistent and was checked very diligently by the SEAC.

3. While these positive beginnings can be seen, there was a complete grey area as far as implementation of environmental measures was concerned. Few of the unlucky ones, which had to come back to the SEAC and had their implementation checked, found that most Developers had not even looked at the conditions stipulated in the EC, after the EC was granted. This opens up a can of worms that governments are not yet geared to look at.

4. The State Pollution Control Boards - agencies which are given the primary responsibility of environmental protection in the State, are the weakest links in the entire process. Consent to Establish and Consent to Operate is required for all real estate projects greater than 20,000 sqm, and it is expected that the stipulated conditions of the EC will be verified by this agency before final consent is given. However, we find that the SPCBs work on the principle of loads of paperwork and nothing on the ground !

5. Another negative side to this State level process is that project teams have to travel across Maharashtra to Mumbai (and sometimes Pune) for the EC hearings. Plus, the entire process is all about documentation, documentation and documentation, so it involves huge paperwork. So while we commit to protect the environment, we end up creating a large Carbon footprint of the process itself.

6. The positive aspect of change that the Model Building Bye Laws may bring for Environmental compliance is its local scrutiny, and thus will considerably reduce the timelines, the paperwork and thus the carbon load of the process. Further, a local process can also bring in better implementation checks and thus we may actually see environmental measures being put into projects as proposed. 

7. On the flip side, a local environmental clearance, if not guaranteed to be corruption free, will just mean complete failure of environmental protection and its norms. Similar to the Building sanction process which is fraught with corrupt practices, environmental compliance will get mired in controversy and effectively no environmental action will be seen on ground.

8. The biggest fear for Architects and Developers is actually this. They who have battled with a corrupt Building Sanction process for so many years are extremely skeptical that a clean, reasonable and timely EC process will be implemented in the Municipal body.This body of professionals fear this the most!

9. Transparent online process of application, compliance re-submission and grant of EC had gained good ground at the State level, but since Jan 2016, there seems to an almost intentional failure of the online system. web portals crash, ECs are not being uploaded on time and there reigns supreme chaos when it comes to deadlines and procedures. It seems like the transparency offered by the online system is not favored by the politicos nor the bureaucracy!

There is a need for a serious intervention by the Chief Minister in the working of the Department of Environment, State of Maharashtra. With a nice rapport shared by Shri. Devendra Fadnavis and Shri. Prakash Javadekar, and the commitment already shown by Shri. Sudhir Mungantiwar in protecting & promoting Forests,  Maharashtra can take the top slot in becoming a State that really streamlines the Environmental Scrutiny and Implementation process for other states to follow.






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