UNEP defines Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as a tool used to identify the environmental, social and economic impacts of a project prior to decision making. The important components of EIA are
- Assessment and evaluation of impacts and development of alternatives
- Reporting the Environment Impact Statement (EIS) or EIA report
- Review of EIS
- Decision making
- Monitoring, compliance, enforcement and environmental auditing
EIA laid its foundation in 1960 as a movement in developed countries (U.S.), and until the Bhopal gas tragedy (1984) an Environmental Protection Act was passed in 1986 (after realising that the environmental laws are inefficient) in India as it was a cause to many injuries and loss of lives. EIA was a project under this Protection Act.
Let us also recall the most recent incidents of 2020 where there was massive fire at Assam’s Baghjan oil well that was emitting gas for 2 weeks, a gas leak in Vishakhapatnam. It led to loss of many lives and directly/indirectly affected thousands of people. What we learnt from these disasters was they were acts of shear ignorance. Why was there a chance of ignorance when there were harmful gasses involved? Where are our Environmental Protection laws? EIA was doing a great work until 2000 after which there has been continuous dilution in laws of protecting the environment. This law has been misused at times due to implementation failures where a power plant was constructed without public hearing, submission of fake EIA reports etc.
Draft EIA 2020 was released in march 2020 and has made changes to it that further dilutes the laws, as follows
- Post-Facto approval
This means that EC (Environmental Clearance) can be granted after the construction of a particular factory/project has started. It implies that any company can layup their factories on huge masses of land by causing direct/indirect depletion of natural resources and can also start production before applying an EC. The reason highlighted behind the Post-Facto approval says that no hindrance shall be created for economic development.
- Public consultation
The time period of consulting public about the location, scale, harmful effects etc reduced from 30 days to 20 days for furnishing their responses. This is especially disadvantageous in rural areas as the residents may lack necessary guidance or resources to realise the long-term effects caused by the factories.
- Compliance report submission
According to EIA a company is to submit a compliance report once in every 6 months, but now it has been extended to once in a year.
- Bypassing EIA
It means there is no need to submit an EIA and now it can be bypassed under the following circumstances:
- If the government deems the project as “strategic”, and also these projects will not have a public hearing.
- Projects having size up to 1,50,000 sqmts do not need scrutiny.
- Exemptions from public participation
It means only the violator of the law is allowed to report about the violation or the government or appraisal committee or regulatory authority can report but not the public.
There will be no public consultation on projects at border areas (which includes 100 kms aerial distance from the line of actual control). The area covered under this is almost whole of north east India that still has thick forests which is ecologically sensitive and the draft allows building of projects (mining of coal, chemical factories, ) in such areas without public hearing.
The draft as of released in march for public opinions mostly focuses on the economic development and does not give much importance to the very cause why the environmental laws were made. It further provides opportunities for misuse of the laws as lenience is granted to bypass the law be it a coal mine, power plant, a chemical factory or any other factory that possesses a threat and no serious inspection is done before its establishment. Considering the fact the we are continuously reminded about the harmful effects caused by pollution, the law has just overlooked the issue.