Pratap Vikram Singh | July 22, 2014
Several big investment projects got stuck in the decision-making lull in the last two years of the UPA administration. The situation got grimmer after 2G and coal scam revelations. This, in effect, led to formation of a project monitoring group (PMG) under the cabinet secretariat to expedite project implementation, followed by the electronic cabinet committee on investment (eCCI). In an interaction with Pratap Vikram Singh, additional secretary of cabinet secretariat Anil Swarup explains how PMG is using eCCI to streamline the clearance process for industries and corporate projects. Excerpts:
A lot has been reported about eCCI and how it has helped fast-track projects across sectors. Can you elaborate on eCCI’s operations?
The project monitoring group (PMG) was set up under the cabinet secretariat in June 2013 to fast-track clearances. There were a lot of projects (at the time) awaiting no objection certificate (NOC) from various ministries and departments. We created a portal where industry could submit their application, giving details of project and problems they face.
The moment a project is accepted by the PMG through the portal, the system automatically flags the problems and sends it to joint secretaries of the respective ministries. So we don’t have to send a letter to ministries separately. For this purpose all ministries have appointed a joint secretary-level official as the nodal officer. The joint secretaries will see the notification online and offer their comments. This is how the information flows.
We have formed 12 subgroups. Of this, three subgroups meet every week. While our meeting with ministry of environment of forest (MoEF) officials takes place every Tuesday, we meet coal ministry officials on Wednesday. There are four set of participants in these subgroups – recipient ministry (where the problem lies, or which has received application from the industry), sponsoring ministry (to which the project belongs) and the private player. (As the fourth participant) I chair these meetings.
Does the subgroup take the final call on projects?
It is not the subgroup’s job to take decisions; that happens at the ministry level. We, however, push ministries to take decisions and suggest a time-frame. If they don’t give me time, I ask them to give me a time to give me the time (laughs). The minutes (proceedings) are recorded directly on the portal during the meeting.
Are these minutes available to the public?
No, they are not since there is a lot of private information involved. On occasions there is sensitivity involved regarding the private sector. Although we are still debating how to put more data in public domain, one can go to our portal and find a list of projects, value of projects (and the) issues involved. Our end objective is to iron out the challenges in project rollout.
How were hurdles related to investment clearance handled earlier, and how are they different now?
There were meetings earlier but there was no institutionalised way of doing it. An important thing which happened (with the launch of the new system) was that if there was a problem with state governments – for the industry 50 percent of the problem is faced at the state level; land acquisition, forest clearance, for example – we used to invite the chief secretary or the senior state officials concerned once in three months.
But now I travel to two states every week. I am here (Delhi) only for three days. When we go to the states we sit with the chief secretary and all senior officers. District magistrates are either present in the meetings or they participate through video-conferencing. We take up projects one by one. The timelines are fixed.
When we went there (to states), we tried to convey value proposition – that in case a project comes through, it is not only the central government which gets benefited; the state government also reaps benefit in terms of employment.
How has the response been from states?
Besides the initial frowning and partial indifference in some, every state is on board over a period of time. Except Tamil Nadu, where we have not been able to enter despite repeated efforts, all states have bought this idea and started demanding a similar portal for projects below Rs 1,000 crore, as was done by (business chambers) CII and FICCI.
In fact, both CII and FICCI heads wrote to the prime minister to bring down the threshold limit from Rs 1,000 crore. States have brought it down to Rs 100 crore. They have asked me whether I can help them prepare the portal. Eleven states and one UT have already done it in the past one and a half months.
Once the nodal officer accepts the project for consideration, issues related to states will go to state departments, and those relating to the central government will come to me. I (will) then forward it to respective central ministries. We have done the backend linkage. We have created a single national platform and the moment I push the button, the issue goes to a joint secretary of the (central) ministry concerned. In my subgroup meetings, we take up issues related to state projects. At the state level, the meeting is headed by the chief secretary or additional chief secretary.
For me, it is a major outcome. You can have excellent online system in place but if it doesn't get used it doesn’t solve the purpose. Fortunately, the stakeholders – industry, state government and central ministries – have found value (in it). We have created an institutional platform where interactions can take place in an open manner, and when that happens solutions start emerging.
What if things don’t get sorted out at the subgroup level?
In case of differences between ministries, the matter is referred to the cabinet. In that case the sponsoring ministry prepares a cabinet note, which is sent to the cabinet and a decision is thus taken.
Can you cite some cases where it had to go up to the cabinet?
There were ultra-mega power projects where in case of environment clearance there was compensatory forestation (planting of trees), for which land was to be acquired by these units. Now, getting land for forestation for the private entrepreneur was quite a stupendous task. The ministry of power took it to cabinet and said that for an ultra-mega power project the land will be identified by the governments, the payment shall still be made by the private sector. This decision will apply all over the country.
Can you give us some examples how the subgroup ironed out differences?
Aerocity is being built close to the Delhi airport. There is an airstrip on one side of it while the other end had aviation research centre (ARC). The ministry of home affairs (MHA) said the windows (of ARC) have to be blocked. The project was worth Rs 12,000 crore (and) it was stuck for two years.
Shielding the buildings with bulletproof glass was a proposed solution. But the MHA still had objections. The civil aviation (ministry), however, said it doesn't see commercial buildings as a security threat. There are complexes (structures) close to airstrips the world over, the civil aviation ministry said. But the MHA didn't budge.
At a meeting on July 12 (2013), I asked officials from the (two) ministries that if the PM is safe behind such glass when he delivers his speech on August 15 from the Red Fort why can’t other government offices and personnel be safe. The DRDO was asked to provide specifications for the glass (and) the issue was resolved.
Today three hotels are functioning (at the spot). They had to spend a little more but the point is those hotels are functioning.
Are you also monitoring post-clearance developments?
The government has taken several initiatives in the last few months. We have started monitoring post-clearance work. After clearances, not much was happening on ground in terms of economic activity – whether production or generation. Earlier it was decided that the department of financial services will monitor post-clearance work (but) this government decided that it will be done by the PMG. So far we have cleared 155 projects.
We sought details of progress made in those projects from the industry and found that actual activity is on in (only) 66 projects. In 60 other projects, construction work is on. Additional issues have come up in another set of 26 projects. We are taking these cases in subgroup meetings and will clear them in another month.
How about fixing timelines for ministries for clearing the projects?
We are not just helping ministries fix timelines for themselves but also digitising the process of clearances. We are revolutionising the way clearances are given. Initially, we outline the process flow, then we fix timelines for projects. We discuss this with all stakeholders – the state departments and central ministry officials concerned – so as to give final shape to the process flow and to the timelines. Software is prepared and put online based on workflow.
This has already happened for forest clearance on July 15 when the environment and forest minister (Prakash Javdekar) launched the digitised forest clearance process. Now the industry can track where the file is pending for forest clearance. For environment, the filing application is web-based. The digitisation of process is taking place now and implementation will start from September 1. The flow chart has been prepared for mining-related process (as well). The diagram has been shared with the states and now there will be a national workshop where we will discuss (the issues) with them, as was the case with forest.
This is scheduled to start from November 1. Coal clearances will be digitised in the last quarter of this financial year.
We are now engaging with states about clearances done at their level – land acquisition, for example. We are trying to see what all processes we can finalise, have timelines and digitise it accordingly. While we are yet to finalise timelines for states, FICCI and CII have prepared an initial draft of how to do it. The ultimate goal is to have a national portal where the industry can apply and then track everything on it, rather than running from one office to another. A lot of it can be completed this financial year, and we will do the rest in the next fiscal.
How has the online platform helped?
It has increased visibility of pendency of cases at the line ministry level and hence has created deterrence for officials to perform and improve. Sitting here, I will know which official has got pending files.
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