The Ministry Of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India put forward a draft- Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, dated March 23, 2020 (“Draft EIA Notification”) earlier this year on April 11,2020. The Draft EIA Notification purpose is to replace the previous notification implemented since September 14, 2006.
An EIA study’s purpose is to identify, assess the economic, environmental and social impact of a planned project or activity (such as mine, dam, industrial unit etc .). It’s main purpose is to predict the impact of the project on the environment so the decisions can be taken accordingly to minimize any harmful impact on environment.
On August 11, the public feedback deadline on the draft ended. According to reports the environment ministry has received 17 lakh comments from the public. This partly was possible due to the success of environment and civil society groups in raising awareness about the arguable changes in environmental law that the EIA Draft proposes. The most controversial of these is the proposal for post facto clearance of projects that have been in operation against the Environment Protection Act (EPA).
Draft EIA 2020 has such contents so as to weaken the policies of environment protection which has raised public concern in a major level. The draft EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) notification,2020, which will replace the 2006 notification was introduced on March 23,2020 by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The changes it aims to bring goes against environmental safeguards. It also goes against the guidelines laid by Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal(NGT), chipping away constitutional ideologies of rule of law.
How is the draft EIA notification different from the one that is now in force ?
There is a removal of several activities from the purview of public consultation. A list of projects has been included under Category B2, clearly excluded from the requirement of an EIA. The projects under this category includes- offshore and onshore oil, gas and shale exploration, hydroelectric projects up to 25 MW, irrigation projects between 2,000 and 10,000 hectares of command area, small and medium mineral beneficiation units, small foundries involving furnace units, some categories of re-rolling mills, small and medium cement plants, small clinker grinding units, acids other than phosphoric or ammonia, sulphuric acid, micro, small and medium enterprises in dye and dye intermediates, bulk drugs, synthetic rubbers, medium-sized paint units, all inland waterway projects, expansion or widening of highways between 25km and 100km with defined parameters, aerial ropeways in ecologically sensitive areas, and specified building construction and area development projects.
There is an apprehension that the exemption from EIA and public consultation for B2 category activity and projects will seriously affect the environment since these will be carried out without oversight. With a new provision for post-facto environmental clearance, this would further weaken environmental protections.
On August 13, the Supreme Court rejected the petition of central government, challenging a Delhi High Court order to print the draft EIA notification 2020 in 22 languages. Post Facto is not a new practice. Post Facto has been made a De Facto practice by our legislature, government and the courts for many years. The main idea of Post Facto is that if a person invests a huge sum of money in an illegal activity – construction of a mall, mines, industries, there is a assumption that the investments made were bona fide.
According to the government taking penal action would cause hurdles in the ease of doing business. The courts justify such illegal acts by saying that there is a need to balance the environment with development. The draft EIA notification has three main objectives : first, most ecologically destructive projects do not require EIA; second, creating exceptions for EIAs; third, to ensure that the projects that require EIAs are not scrutinized by public or experts.
Due to Covid-19 pandemic certain amendments have been made to the 2006 notification. Under India’s international law obligations any such environment protection rules are required to meet to meet the requirement precautionary principle to avoid harm. The proposed draft may not address these concerns unless amended.
Communities living in close areas are affected the most when a project gets clearance. EIA 2020 reduces opportunities for public participation by reducing the time of public response to 20 days which was initially 30 days and also excluding a number of projects from public hearings. There are additional barriers as because EIA reports are not available in local languages.
A one time amnesty protocol was developed in 2017 for projects that violated rules under EIA 2006 and these were remedied through compensation or penalties. LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd- in whose plant in Vishakhapatnam, a tragic gas leak occurred in May 2020-was among the violators. Incidents like these will increase in rate if post-facto clearance becomes a common practice.
Laws such as the National Biodiversity Act 2002, give a prominant and significant role to local bodies such as Gram Sabhas – in protection and conservation of native biodiversity.
We need to go beyond stating that development comes at an environmental cost. There has to be innovative ways to reduce negative ways that have an impact on environment. The issue of EIA is no longer a domain of environmental groups. It has become an issue of free speech. The backlash of government has helped unite diverse social groups.