NEW DELHI—India’s two most influential real estate sector lobby groups took exactly opposite positions about the Narendra Modi government’s controversial new draft law for environment clearance in their recent letters to the union environment ministry, according to official documents and interviews with members of the two groups by HuffPost India.
While the Builders Association of India (BAI) criticised several provisions of the proposed law—which is officially called the draft environment impact assessment notification (EIA 2020)—and sought its withdrawal as well as postponement of the ongoing public consultation process due to the coronavirus pandemic; the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Associations of India (CREDAI) welcomed the draft law calling it “transparent” and one that “promotes sustainable development”.
If the position taken by CREDAI on the proposed law is obvious, the BAI’s position is unexpected because, as HuffPost India revealed in a previous report, some provisions in the draft EIA 2020 notification help the real estate sector at the cost of the environment.
And yet, in a two page letter sent to the environment secretary last week, the BAI president Mu. Moahan expressed his concerns about some of the provisions of the draft law and doubted the possibility of having broad based public consultations given the prevailing coronavirus pandemic.
“We are deeply concerned that this draft notification has been put out in the midst of a national health crisis,” said Moahan in the letter sent to the environment secretary on August 3.
“Opportunities to understand and discuss the implications of the proposed amendments may be severely hindered due to the present health emergency with restricted public movement, social distancing and challenges to everyday life activities. These restrictions also make it impossible to disseminate information about the notification to communities who deserve to know and influence the notification.”
In his short letter, the BAI president also criticised the draft EIA notification 2020 by listing out its eight “salient features” which it said were “against the interest of the public”. Majority of these include provisions which, in different circumstances and for a variety of projects, exclude project proponents from the legal obligation to conduct public hearing and consultations about the potentially adverse impact of their activities on people and environment.
The letter stakes out an unusual position for an influential real estate sector lobby group, which claims to have over 15,000 members in 148 centres across India. For the industry has been historically opposed to the idea of even being included in the environment impact assessment process. But the BAI president did not reiterate this demand in his letter.
Instead, he requested four specific things about the draft EIA 2020 : a) its withdrawal from public consultation b) reissuing the draft only after the coronavirus pandemic is over c) full disclosure about the nature of comments received along with reasons for acceptance or rejection and d) ensuring widespread and informed public consultation about the proposed law.
His letter is also unusual because, as HuffPost India revealed in a detailed report recently, the draft law alters the scope of the Corporate Environment Responsibility in line with a previous request made by the CREDAI which could help developers.
To be sure, the BAI president’s letter was silent on specific provisions in the draft EIA 2020 notification that are applicable to a vast majority of projects in the real estate and construction sector. It criticised specifically only those provisions that are proposed to be applied to other industries. For instance, among the eight provisions the letter criticised includes the one which allows for the extension of the “validity period for approvals in critical sectors such as mining and heavy industries”.
However, the letter also criticised the contentious provision to grant post-facto clearance to projects which have been established in violation of environmental norms and this could involve real estate projects which violated norms as well.
When HuffPost India reached out to him, the BAI National President Mu. Moahan refused to comment about the letter.
But a BAI office bearer, who spoke with this reporter on the condition of anonymity, said, “We are also citizens of India and this letter has been written in larger public interest as we believe some of the provisions are wrong and need wider public consultation which is presently not possible due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
When asked if the BAI has changed its position about inclusion of real estate and construction industry into the environment impact assessment process, the office bearer of the association refused to share a specific comment but made a broad point that provisions for residential projects may be fine but those for industries and mega projects in all sectors are the bone of contention. Asked to comment on the CREDAI’ s support for the draft EIA 2020, this BAI office bearer said, “If they are supporting the draft, it is wrong.”
This reporter also reached out to the CREDAI Chairman Jaxay Shah for a comment. While Shah did not respond to specific questions, CREDAI Vice President Shantilal Kataria said, “This notification has come after thorough thought by the central government, particularly the environment department. Easing business is important and we welcome this.”
Kataria shared three broad points that he said summarise CREDAI’s written communication to the environment ministry in support of the draft EIA 202O.
“The draft is a balanced which will clear many ambiguities and will bring transparency to the environmental clearance process while ensuring protection of environment (sic.),” said the first point.
The second point stated, “The draft is a transparent it promotes sustainable development. (sic.)”
The last point in the short note shared by Kataria with HuffPost India appeared to be a request. It said, “The process of environmental clearance for projects under category 42 must be completed within 30 days of filing the application. The SEAC and SEIAA committees should be working at least 15 working days in a month if not more because number of projects to which EC becomes applicable is far too many and steadily increasing.”
Kataria said while the CREDAI national unit has sent its positive feedback “welcoming” the draft EIA 2020 to the union environment ministry along with some suggestions, some state level units of the lobby group are also preparing to write to the ministry soon. When asked for his opinion about the BAI’s opposition to the proposed law, he said that he hadn’t seen the letter so he wouldn’t like to comment.
This notification has come after thorough thought by the central government, particularly the environment department. Easing business is important and we welcome this.CREDAI Vice President Shantilal Kataria
In a stark contrast to this, the BAI president, in the final paragraph of his two page letter wrote, “We do hope that the environment ministry will uphold its obligations towards informed public participation like the commitment to Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration and also the Principles of Natural Justice, while taking a considered view on the proposed amendments to the EIA Notification, 2020.”
The BAI office bearer quoted earlier said, no response had been received by the association from the government to this letter.
At a public event organised by the ministry on Monday, union environment minister Prakash Javadekar had this to say about the controversial proposed law and the response it has been evoking lately in several sections, “This is only a draft, not the final notification. The draft will be finalised after taking into consideration all suggestions and comments received.”