By Rina Chandran
MUMBAI, March 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Indian government is giving industrial projects a chance to clear regulatory hurdles they had previously failed to do, in a move analysts say legitimises projects destroying forests and water sources, and hurting communities dependent on them.
India's environment ministry last week offered industries that had not previously obtained environmental clearance a period of six months to become compliant with the law, rather than leave them "unregulated and unchecked".
This gives violating industries a free pass, allowing them to bypass safeguards and public hearings otherwise required for such a clearance, said Kanchi Kohli, an analyst at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
"These violations have caused large-scale public harm," she said, adding that the ministry opening a "back door" for those who do not comply sets a bad precedent.
"This scheme takes our environment regulation several steps back."
India has enacted several laws to protect its forests, coasts and rivers, but they are rarely enforced. Illegal mining and industrial pollution have devastated vast tracts of land and bodies of water, harming communities dependent on them.
The environment ministry said that projects applying for clearance in the next six months will be appraised by a committee, and that the regulatory process will be "stringent and punitive".
As more land and resources are sought for industrial projects in one of the fastest growing economies in the world, these violations are becoming more common, analysts say.
A 2013 law on land acquisitions for industries laid down strict rules for environmental and social impact assessments, but several states dilute these provisions, arguing they delay vital projects that create jobs and boost growth.
India risks facing more conflicts over land and legal challenges to acquisitions as the dilution of laws hurts farmers and other vulnerable communities, said a former minister who helped frame the 2013 law.
Earlier this week, an Indian court declared the sacred Ganges and Yamuna rivers living entities, giving them the same legal rights as human beings in an effort to protect them from further destruction.