New Delhi: The National Green Tribunal Tuesday said that it is no longer mandatory for the environment ministry to refer to Gadgil panel`s report while deciding applications for clearance for projects in permissible areas of the Western Ghats.
A bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar clarified that with the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) accepting `in-principle` the recommendations of the K Kasturirangan panel report, the MoEF can now consider either of the reports while deciding the applications for clearance.
"We vary the our interim order of September 20, 2012 to the extent that it is not mandatory for the MoEF to decide the application for any clearances in the permissible area of the Western Ghat only with reference to Gadgil report.
"They are free to take into consideration either of the reports and other relevant factors in accordance with law," the bench said and listed the matter on December 17.
The Western Ghats is an ecologically sensitive area which is spread across the six states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The tribunal also observed that MoEF`s October 19, 2013 office memorandum (OM), stating the government`s acceptance of recommendations of Kasturirangan panel is silent on various aspects and directed the ministry to file an affidavit to put the matter "beyond ambiguity".
"This OM is silent with regard to the stipulations, the scope of the monitoring Committee as well as Notification which is contemplated to be issued, and the time frame in that regard.
Thus, we direct the MoEF to file an appropriate affidavit answering all these issues in order to put the matters beyond ambiguity...," the bench said.
Meanwhile, the petitioner Goa Foundation, represented by senior advocate Raj Panjwani, was asked to file a comparative statement about the recommendations of the two panels as well as the acceptance and stand of the ministry in that regard.
The tribunal on the next date will hear arguments on the contention of the Kerala government that with MoEF accepting the Kasturirangan panel`s recommendations, the plea to put into effect the Gadgil committee`s report is infructuous.
While Kerala contended that the present petition is infructuous due to acceptance of recommendations of the Kasturirangan panel, also known as the High Level Working Group (HLWG), Panjwani argued that the findings have been accepted only in-principle and thus the reliefs sought in the plea still subsist.
He also contended before the tribunal that by applying the `precautionary principle`, the NGT can go into the correctness of the ministry`s decision to accept the report of HLWG.
Some of HLWG`s recommendations which have been accepted in-principle by MoEF (as per its OM) are, definition of the extent of the Western Ghats demarcated by the panel, the ecologically sensitive area (ESA) identified and delineated by it, complete ban on mining, quarrying, sand-mining, thermal power plants and red category industries in ESA.
According to the MoEF`s OM, HLWG has identified approximately 37 per cent (about 60,000 square kilometres) of the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive. ESA also includes protected areas and world heritage sites in the region.
The other recommendations that have been accepted `in- principle` by the ministry are, hydro and wind energy projects are allowed in the western ghats subject to stringent and applicable conditions and that projects already under consideration of the respective State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities and MoEF on the date of issue of draft notification will be considered under the then existing regulations.
In its report submitted to MoEF in August 2011, the Gadgil Committee, also known as the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), had designated the entire Western Ghats as an `ecologically sensitive` area.
The second committee headed by Planning Commission member K Kasturirangan which was set up to finalise the Gadgil panel`s report had submitted its recommendations to MoEF in April this year.