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India to open new Environmental Protection Agency

Autonomous body will have power to block new coal or hydro power plants deemed polluting or unsustainable

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By Ed King

India’s Supreme Court has ordered the government to open a new institution based on the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency, aimed at addressing rising levels of pollution across the country.

The National Environmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority will decide where power stations, dams, mining operations and industrial units can be built.

The new autonomous body could play an important role in protecting India’s fast-disappearing forests, reduce the spread of coal-fired power plants and force businesses to engage better with local communities.

First proposed in 2011, plans were buried by a Ministry of Environment and Forests unwilling to lose any of its powers, but the NEAMA will now be made operational by March 31.

Currently the Ministry evaluates proposed schemes, but critics say the committees responsible for signing off schemes are manned by industry insiders who often fail to consider the wider impacts of new infrastructure.

“The present system that we have … has not really functioned,” environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta told RTCC, adding that the current system is manned by “retired bureaucrats” with “a serious issue of conflict of interests”.

Currently he says ‘Expert Appraisal Committees’ working for the Ministry can approve 70-80 projects a day, taking 8-10 minutes to scan proposals that can be more than 100 pages long.

A government official to whom RTCC spoke under condition of anonymity admitted the current system is flawed, and said there is a perception “it could be open to bias”. They added the new body could restore “integrity” to the process.

The federal National Green Tribunal recently issued a damning indictment of the current regulatory process relating to its approval of four 600MW coal power plants in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

“It is evident in the instant case that the EAC has miserably failed in the performance of its duty not only as mandated by the EIA Notification, 2006, but has also disappointed the legal expectations from the same,” it said, accusing the EAC of making a judgement in a “cursory and arbitrary manner.”

Dutta, who has a history of taking polluting businesses to account in India’s Supreme Court, says India is now losing around 333 acres of forest a day to “industrial processes.”

According to data from the World Resources Institute, India has over 400 coal power plants in the pipeline, and 292 planned dams throughout the Himalaya.

A 2013 World Bank report warned that environmental degradation is now costing India $80 billion a year, or around 5.7% of the country’s GDP.

The impact of coal and steel plants on health, a lack of access to clean water supplies and the destruction of forests for agriculture and industry were key concerns, it added.

The country is the fourth largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and is projected to account for the largest share of energy growth and demand in Asia with China by 2035.

Welcoming news of a new body, Dutta warns that initially it is unlikely to get much support from a federal government that likes to maintain a strong grip on power.

Funding and staffing levels for the new body have yet to be agreed, and while comparisons have been made with the US EPA, it is likely to start as a far smaller organisation.

“On the face of it it looks good – but it could still end up with the same lot of people doing the same thing…so ultimately it will depend on political will,” said Dutta.

He added: “In the present situation the government doesn’t want to set it up – it will only be half-hearted”.

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