Buried: red-tape rule for road-diggers

New Delhi, Dec. 24: The environment ministry has eased the clearance process for building roads, issuing a notification that says permission for excavating soil at different points along the entire project stretch needs to be taken only once.

The circular, issued last Tuesday, followed a meeting on November 27 where the road ministry broached the topic with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Earlier, the environment ministry's permission was required every time the need arose to burrow soil or earth for a single road project.

Road and highways minister C.P. Joshi had also raised this issue as a major irritant during a recent review meeting with finance minister P. Chidambaram.

According to the notification, "construction of highways along with the mining of soil/earth from burrow areas (is) to be considered as a single project for appraisal under Environment Impact Assessment".

This means that while environment clearance will still be required for excavating soil, the permission has been clubbed with the entire project.

The notification has thus rationalised the process of clearance, a major irritant since May 18 this year when the environment ministry made permission compulsory even for excavating plots smaller than five hectares. Earlier, environment clearance was required only for digging areas that measured five hectares or more.

Clearance is compulsory for burrowing soil as "ordinary earth", used for filling or levelling projects like embankments and roads, has been notified as a minor mineral.

According to the environment ministry's new notification, road developers have to submit beforehand details about the quantity of soil/earth to be extracted.

The road ministry has also been demanding that environment clearance be de-linked from forest clearance.

If a forest area now falls along the route of a road project, environment clearance for the entire project is held up till a decision is taken on whether to allow road construction through the forest stretch. "All we are asking is, allow us to build the road up to the forest area and beyond it. We can leave the stretch that falls under the forest area untouched. We can construct the road inside the forest area at a later point whenever the forest clearance comes," said a senior official.

This issue also came up during the meeting with the Prime Minister, who had asked the environment ministry and the law ministry to take a view.

Sources said the law secretary had agreed with the road ministry's demand. "We are hoping that the environment ministry will give us a favourable decision in this regard, too," the official added.

The government's performance in the road sector has been poor this financial year. It had set an ambitious target of awarding contracts for 8,800km of roads but, till October, has been able to do so for only 705km.

"Apart from the general slowdown of the economy, viability of some of the projects, sectoral lending caps of banks, limitations of the concessionaires like availability of equity and other resources to execute the projects appear to be the main factors for poor response," Sarvey Sathyanaryana, minister of state for roads, told the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday.

The ministry also blames delayed environment clearances as a reason for the poor performance. According to the road ministry, over 300 projects are waiting for clearance from the forests and environment ministry.

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