The National Environment Commission has taken a bold decision. It has delegated the authority of issuing environment clearance of at least 50 activities to relevant agencies and ministries.
This will come as good news for those, who feel that getting an environment clearance is cumbersome and mired in layers of bureaucratic process. In fact, if the decision to delegate authority was meant to speed up processes of starting a business or a project, it should have been done a long time ago.
The commission comes under heavy criticism, whenever a clearance for big or small projects is delayed for whatever reasons. As the final issuing authority, many felt that the commission was responsible for all the delays. A good example is the delay in starting a mining industry, where, according to some, applicants change their minds while awaiting clearance.
It makes sense to delegate authority if it could help implement development work faster. A lot of red tape is expected to be reduced with one hurdle removed. But while we look forward to departments and ministries to speed up issuing environment clearances, it may be wise to ask ourselves, why now?
Lets hope that the decision was not made under pressure. The commission has come under intense criticism and pressure, as the government, with its initiative of performance agreement with bureaucrats, forces people to deliver. Some were quite open and quick to make the commission a scapegoat for not being able to start work that was agreed with the government. There is also a direct command from the government to expedite the issue of environment clearance.
The NEC is mandated to protect, conserve and improve the natural environment. Environment clearance is one tool of fulfilling their mandate. From the list of activities delegated, it seems, at least at a glance, departments and ministries can do it. We have environment officers in many agencies, even in dzongkhags. If they can do it, it will speed up starting a business or a project.
However, it is good to bear in mind that the commission decentralising its power does not mean that we do not care for nature. The commission should still provide check and balance. Not to demean environment officers, there is still a risk of unhealthy trends seeping in when powers are delegated.
Preserving the environment is a cornerstone of our development process. Had it not been for the stringent policies and importance given to the environment, we could have, like someone said, become far richer by devouring our natural wealth.
Development activities, no matter how small they are, have an impact on nature. Now that a decision had been taken, it would be wise to strengthen the environment team in departments, dzongkhags and ministries, even if they are answerable to the elected minister.
Getting an environment clearance takes time. If the time is taken for reasons other than studying the impact, people have reason to criticise. Such an important decision, we can only hope, was not made either in haste or out of pressure.