The environment ministry has turned down the power ministry’s proposal of letting the regional officials grant forest clearances (FCs) for hydro projects that have an area up to 40 hectares. Moreover, it has also refused to change the prescribed norms for “e-flows” — which is quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain ecosystems and dependant human livelihoods — in hydro projects of the country. These proposals were put forward by Piyush Goyal, minister of mines, power and coal, in a meeting with Anil Dave, minister of environment, forest and climate change on September 3, 2016. Various officials from the mines ministry, the power ministry, the coal ministry, the environment ministry, National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), the renewable energy ministry, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and Central Mine Planning and Design Institute (CMPDI) were also present in this meeting.
On September 2, 2014, the environment ministry had stated: “The ministry has decided to delegate powers to the regional empowered committees (REC) to be constituted at each regional office of the ministry to finally dispose of all forest clearance proposals seeking diversion of forest land up to 40 hectares, except the proposals relating to mining, regularisation of encroachments and hydel projects.” According to minutes of the meeting of September 3, 2016, the power ministry wanted the same powers to be delegated to REC for hydro projects, too. However, the environment ministry did not agree to the proposal. Moreover, according to power ministry, “e-flow” requirements of “20-25-30 per cent of river discharge in different seasons has adversely affected viability of many projects very severely. These e-flows requirements should be as per the natural hydrological data of river flows”.
However, the environment ministry stated clearly at this meeting that “the minimum e-flow is to be maintained as per the prescribed norms.” It elaborated on its stand: “The basin study is done using hydrological data, field survey and scientific modeling etc which is further evaluated by EAC (expert appraisal committee). HEPs (hydro-electric projects) has to be developed as per river basin study report.” Another issue raised by power ministry was related to the excessive time consumption due to requirement of more than one public hearing in tribal areas. “Public hearing is held once for forest clearance and for tribal areas. The public hearing is to be held again as per requirements of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) — called FRA compliance — hence holding of two public hearings for largely the same set of PAFs (performance assessment frameworks), especially in sensitive areas like Arunachal Pradesh/North East, creates excessive delays in projects.
Meeting for FC/FRA be held simultaneously and only once. Necessary modifications may be considered by environment ministry,” the minutes of the meeting noted. However, the environment ministry did not consider any modification in its own rules and was of the opinion that the public consultation under the provision of the FRA and EPA (Environmental Protection Act) Acts are mandatory as per the statutes of the Acts. “The public consultation can be conducted together as well as separately, therefore, the PP (project proponent) has to request to the concerned authority,” the minutes of the meeting stated. These proposals were put forward to push the hydro sector as the installed capacity of hydropower projects has remained at around 40,000 MW for the past three years, while that of the renewable energy sector has increased about 20 per cent in the same period. Moreover, in past decade renewable energy (solar and wind power) has grown by 89 per cent while hydro has staggered with 28 per cent.
On March 9, Goyal told the Lok Sabha: “Out of 44 HEPs (hydro electric projects above 25 MW), 20 HEPs totalling 6,329 MW are stalled/stressed and an amount of Rs 30,147 crore has already been spent on these HEPs.” Therefore, the central government is now trying to revive the hydro sector. Goyal also informed the Lok Sabha that the government is contemplating declaring all hydro power projects as renewable energy which would ensure coverage under Renewable Purchase Obligation (RPO) and qualify for dispatch priority. Currently, the hydro projects below 25 MW capacity come under the purview of ministry of new and renewable energy and categorised as ‘small hydro’. The central government is also thinking to increase the ambit of ‘small hydro’ to 100 MW from current 25 MW. This would in turn help achieve the renewable energy targets of states and also bring a large number of projects under the net of government subsidy and other tax benefits.