By SASITHORN ONGDEE
THE junta issued its latest order on Monday using Article 44 of the interim charter. It amended the environmental protection law in a bid to cut delays in the government’s investment projects caused by the environment impact assessment (EIA) process.
Activists see this order as bringing cheer to the business sector, but suffering to people.
The junta’s order can be seen as an attempt to boost the economy by investment spending considering the withering exports.
Since Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha took power in 2014, a number of projects that were supposed to have taken off have fallen short of the government’s target. One of the main reasons is the long period required for the EIA process, resulting in construction costs and compensation for land expropriation surging. Some projects took as long as eight years to pass the EIA.
Last year, the government announced its “Action Plan” to invest Bt1.6 trillion in infrastructure projects. Construction was expected to start within 2017.
A part of the Thai-Chinese standard-gauge railway project for the Bangkok-Nong Khai route is contained in the plan. Recently, the Chinese side completed its design work and submitted it to Thailand for consideration. Issues regarding investment in the project is still in the process of negotiations.
Not surprisingly, the super-fast lane will be used for the Thai-China railway project. Negotiations between the two governments had installed since the 10th meeting planned in Beijing last month-end was put off. The new schedule has yet to be set, making the project’s ground-breaking planned for May in doubt.
At market-testing events held over the past few weeks in Khon Kaen and Saraburi – two out of five provinces through which the railroad will pass – many people did not want the railroad to pass through their cities or communities.
The local people proposed to the government to elevate the railroad over their cities or communities, as they did not believe they would benefit from the railroad. They saw only travellers from Bangkok and foreign tourists as the beneficiaries. This could push up the construction cost substantially.
According to the amended law, the projects under supervision of the state and related agencies can ask the Cabinet for the “super-fast lane” if they are urgently required for public benefit such as building of hospitals and residences or those related to transportation, disaster prevention, and irrigation.
The fast-lane approval will allow the agencies to proceed with the process of selecting private companies to participate even while the EIA process is underway. This could help reduce by half the period of time for the consideration process, as one process does not have to wait for the other to conclude.
Under the normal process, projects have to seek approval from the Cabinet first, which is followed by the EIA process. After the projects secure the EIA approval, the process of selecting private firms to participate in projects begins.
However, the junta’s order will not allow the agencies responsible for the projects to engage in any legal transactions with private firms until the projects pass the EIA process. The activists’ view this as an attempt to heap pressure on parties involved in the EIA review process.
At this point, the private firms are also at risk if they decide to participate in the state undertaking [or bidding for the projects’ construction]. If the projects do not get the EIA approval, the selected private companies will not get the jobs and they would have wasted their time.
The question that arises is whether we should have a mechanism to balance the excessive power of the administration and the voice of people when any projects are truly needed?
The junta’s attempt to shorten the process for consideration of infrastructure projects might be well-intentioned to pull the country out of the middle-income trap. But such a shortcut could also harm the “checks and balances” system in the long term. Eventually the economic growth we admire might not be sustainable.