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SC cancels 2020 exemptions to linear projects

  • Context (IE): The Supreme Court has struck down the 2020 exemption from Environmental Clearance (EC) given to earth extraction for linear projects, such as road and railway construction.
  • It was issued during the COVID-19 period with the objective of speeding up road infrastructure to provide sustenance to daily wagers who had lost their livelihood due to the pandemic.

About the issue

  • 2006 Notification by Environment Ministry: Activities requiring prior Environment Clearances under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (EP Act) were notified.
  • 2016 Notification: Certain categories of projects were exempted from this requirement in 2016.
  • 2020 notification: It added “Extraction of ordinary earth for linear projects such as roads, pipelines, etc.” to the list of exempted activities.
  • This exemption was challenged in NGT.
  • The general purpose of the 2020 notification was to conform to the amendments made in 2020 to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, allowing new lessees to continue mining for two years with the statutory clearances and licences issued to their predecessors.

NGT Judgement 2020

  • NGT held that the Ministry “should strike a balance instead of being a blanket exemption.”
  • Appropriate safeguards, such as the process of excavation and quantum, should be implemented.
  • The Tribunal asked the Centre to “revisit” the notification within three months.
  • The government appealed in the Supreme Court against the NGT judgement.

2023 Notification

  • The Ministry formulated an enforcement mechanism memorandum for the exemption in August 2023.
  • The Ministry notified that the exemption in question would be “subject to the compliance of standard operating procedures and environmental safeguards issued in this regard from time to time”.

Observation and Judgement of Supreme Court

  • Arbitrary and violative of Article 14: Blanket exemption in 2020 notification is arbitrary.
  • No safeguards: Exemption granted without any safeguards defeats the purpose of the EP Act.
  • Quantity: The notification failed to mention that “only quantity required for the project would be exempted”.
  • Article 21: Article 21 includes the Right to health and a clean environment, making citizens a stakeholder in environmental consultations.
  • Lacunae in the 2023 notification: Ministery failed to elaborate on the concept of linear projects, the authority and provisions responsible for environmental safeguards, or impose restrictions on the quantum of extraction.

Center’s Stand

  • The exemption was necessary “for the aid of the general public”.
  • It would help “the kumhars (potters), farmers, gram panchayats, banjara, loads of Gujarat” and all non-mining activities identified by the states.
  • Center argued that the grant of exemption was a policy matter that did not warrant judicial interference.

Arguments against the exemption

  • Violation of Article 14: Indiscriminate extraction of earth was arbitrary and violated Article 14.
  • Deepak Kumar versus the State of Haryana (2012) case: The exemption violated the requirement of prior EC in the mining leases, as laid down in the given case.
  • Circumvention of public opinion: The legal procedure of inviting public objections was circumvented in the 2020 notification “under the garb of ‘public interest’.
  • Vested interest: It was alleged that this serves the interests of private miners and contractors.

Possible implications

  • Win for the environment: Striking down on such notification is a win for environment conservationists.
  • Continued judicial environmentalism: The Judiciary signalled its adherence to environmental causes.
  • Delay in projects: Developmental projects may require fresh clearances, causing delays.

For more information, visit > EIA.

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