Delhi trees: Like mines, redevelopment projects must also face tough environmental approval process

On Thursday, the Delhi High Court will hear a petition challenging the environmental clearance granted to projects in the city’s greenest areas.

It has been a month since hundreds of Delhi residents took to the streets to mark their protest against the redevelopment of the greenest areas of the city. A protest that started as an action against the felling of over 14,000 trees has evolved into a campaign against Delhi’s misadministration by a range of government agencies and regulatory bodies that has led to an environmental crisis in the national Capital. The lack of public information about several newly proposed projects to redevelop Delhi’s old neighbourhoods has led residents to demand project disclosures, and public audits. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change and the Delhi government are directly responsible for these projects.

On Thursday, the Delhi High Court will hear a petition filed by Dr KK Mishra, a senior orthopaedic surgeon, challenging the environmental clearances granted to these redevelopment projects by the Environment Ministry.

Environmental approvals

Large construction projects have huge environmental and social impacts. When they are proposed to come up in urban centres that are already dealing with air pollution, water shortages and failing public services, their impacts could be much greater. This is why the Environment Ministry made an environmental clearance mandatory for most construction projects in 2004 under the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification.

The construction lobby resisted this move. They argued that construction projects should not be equated with industries or mines, as they are not polluting. They claimed that such projects “only generate human breath and human solid and liquid waste”. In 2006, when the notification was being amended, the environment ministry officials made a special presentation to the Prime Minister’s Office arguing that the real estate sector deserves environmental scrutiny for impacts on energy, water, sewage and urban infrastructure. Eventually they were included in the notification but with leniency in the documentation and appraisal process.

Over the years, the negotiations have continued and exemptions granted. Educational institutions and industrial sheds do not require environment clearance. For only one year, while a challenge was pending before the National Green Tribunal, projects over 3 lakh square metres built-up area were directed to the environment ministry for approval. This is how the Netaji Nagar, Nauroji Nagar and Sarojini Nagar redevelopment projects received approvals. Today all construction projects over 20,000 square metres built-up area require approvals from the state impact assessment authorities.

Procedural leniency

Even though construction projects require environmental approvals, successive governments have shown them leniency by excluding them from the requirement of public hearings that are a part of this process. Public hearings serve as open forums, bringing together project authorities, regulators and affected parties for dialogue. Proponents make detailed presentations and citizens get a chance to respond and seek clarifications. This process also makes essential project documents available to citizens, at least 30 days prior to a public hearing. The appraisal of the project by experts involves looking into the concerns of the public raised at these hearings.

This exemption for construction projects from holding such hearings jars with the current ideas of good governance. It also leads to the most undemocratic form of decision-making since governments and citizens seem to have entirely conflicting priorities. While residents are increasingly concerned about the ecology, improving air quality and living environments, governments, including the Environment Ministry seem to be propelled by an unreflexive narrative of growth and old, delegitimised forms of development.

Missing assessments

Since the project Environmental Impact Assessments have to satisfy only regulators who are limited by the wishes of governments, and not the public, they are worse than the usual Environmental Impact Assessments for mining and hydropower projects that are carefully scrutinised by potentially affected communities.

Delhi’s redevelopment projects have missed or left out very crucial assessments needed to understand the overall consequences of these projects. Some examples are the following. For Nauroji Nagar and Netaji Nagar, a detailed traffic management and decongestion plan was to be carried out prior to the project’s approval. This is especially important as the Terms of Reference for the impact assessment asked for this study to be included so that the project’s overall viability could be assessed. However, the study is being done post facto, after the environment clearance is issued and construction activity has begun.

On air quality, the Environmental Impact Assessments of Netaji Nagar, Nauroji Nagar and Sarojini Nagar provide an extremely limited understanding. The only impact envisaged is to the movement of vehicles during construction, and mitigation is considered only for the impact from diesel generator sets. There is no systematic assessment of how these projects will transform air quality once commercial infrastructure, housing and vehicular movement increases in this area.

Wasted opportunity

Continued government reluctance to put construction projects through a robust environmental approval process and the exemption from public scrutiny awarded to massive urban real estate projects means that we have put aside a good opportunity to make “redevelopment” different from development. Delhi’s original government housing done in the 1960s suffered several drawbacks. What good would it do to this city and its residents to repeat these same mistakes?

Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon are researchers at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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