Green tussle on housing

Environment ministry bats for real estate exemption

By Jayanta Basu in Calcutta
  • Published 11.01.18

Calcutta: The Union environment ministry is planning to move the Supreme Court against a recent National Green Tribunal verdict that quashed its notification allowing exemptions to the real estate sector from environmental laws.

"We are contemplating moving the Supreme Court.... After all, the notification was issued at the behest of the urban development ministry and even the Prime Minister's Office," a senior environment department official from Delhi told The Telegraph.

Last December, the principal bench of the National Green Tribunal quashed the notification, introduced with the stated purpose of minimising glitches in providing affordable housing to all by 2022, and asked the Centre to ensure that the interests of business and economic profitability are not served in the name of catering to the poor.

The Opposition too has voiced the same concerns.

"MoEF&CC (the ministry of environment, forest and climate change) shall particularly take care that the laudable social cause of 'providing housing to the poor' does not get defeated by business, economic profitability with reference to 'ease of doing business', while particularly protecting the environment," the bench of tribunal chairperson, Justice Swatanter Kumar, Justice Jawad Rahim and expert member Bikram Singh Sajwan said.

"The said amendment notification is only a ploy to circumvent the provisions of environmental assessment... in the name of 'ease of doing responsible business'," the bench observed and held that the proposed exemption would seriously impact India's commitment to the Paris protocol as it is expected to compromise with carbon dioxide emissions.

"The construction industry... has a significant energy footprint, the sector emits 22 per cent of India's total annual carbon dioxide emissions," the tribunal added.

According to Ritwik Dutta, an environment lawyer from Delhi who represented two of the five petitioners challenging the notification, the environment ministry's move "threatened to completely dilute the fabric" of environment governance. Dutta said construction was a big "polluting sector".

The notification, dated December 9, 2016, exempted real estate projects up to 1,50,000sqm of built-up area from environmental impact assessment and obtaining environmental clearances under the Air Act, 1981, and the Water Act, 1974.

The local municipalities and municipal corporations were asked to form environment committees to look after the environmental aspects of constructing buildings and other real estate projects.

Dutta said houses for the poor hardly needed 30sqm.

The tribunal reprimanded the environment ministry for overlooking its own findings regarding the incompetence of local authorities in assessing environment issues related to real estate projects.

"This is a landmark order as the present central government has been consistently trying to dilute the environmental regulations and give the green violators a free way in the name of development," said Biswajit Mukherjee, retired chief law officer of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board. The board during Mukherjee's tenure was one of the earliest to introduce environmental norms for the housing sector.