What is Environment Impact Assessment?
Environment impact assessment is a process under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, which prevents industrial and infrastructural projects from being approved without proper oversight. This process ensures that every project should go through the EIA process for obtaining prior environmental clearance.
The new draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 proposed by the Union government is a regressive departure from the 2006 version that it seeks to replace. This notification would cause a landmark shift in the way clearances are obtained in the country.
The EIA new draft 2020 allows post-facto clearance.
This means that even if a project has come up without environment safeguards or without getting environment clearances, it could carry out operations under the provision of the new draft EIA 2020. Once in use, industries would be able to pay penalties to bypass environmental policies.
What must be mentioned here is the fact that The Supreme Court of India disapproved of the practice of post facto clearances to industrial projects in April of this year.
Time and time again, we have seen that poor adherence to environmental policies has paved the way for disasters—the most recent cases being from this year itself.
The LG Polymer Plant in Vizag, where Styrene gas leaked on the 7th of May, resulting in injuries to more than a thousand people! It is alleged that the plant had been running for over two decades without clearances.
Another incident was reported on the 27th of May, where due to poor adherence to environment norms, the natural gas of Oil India Limited in eastern Assam’s Tinsukia district had a blowout and caught fire. The State Pollution Board, Assam, had reported that the oil plant had been operating for over 15 years without obtaining prior consent from the board.
The new draft would make these non-compliances much easier.
Takes power away from communities
The new draft reduces the space available for public participation, thereby abandoning public trust. Public participation has been crucial in the EIA process and has significantly helped communities to not only get information about the projects being proposed in their areas but also to speak about their concerns regarding the projects.
Manohar Chawhan, a tribal rights activist, working on the issues of forest governance in scheduled areas across Odisha and Chhattisgarh, said, “The new draft will strengthen discretionary power of government while restraining public engagement in safeguarding the environment.”
There is a list of the selected projects in the new draft that have been proposed to be exempted from public participation. Modernisation or irrigation projects, all building constructions, and area development projects, expansion or widening of national highways, all projects concerning national defence and security, are part of the list.
The time allotted for public hearings has been reduced. The public consultation process is reduced from 30 days to 20 days giving less time to the public to submit their responses during a public hearing for any application seeking environmental clearance.
There are a large number of communities like Adivasis, peasants, and coastal and fisher communities whose lives mainly depend on the state of the environment. Any drastic changes in EIA will have a direct impact on the living and working conditions of these people and the ecology.
Promotes centralisation of authority with the Ministry.
The Ministry has the sole right for appointments and constitution of Expert Appraisal Committee at the Central and State levels and also to the important Technical Committee.
“These committees form the architecture of the environmental oversight required. Without a mandate for autonomy, these committees may well become rubber stamps for what the government wants approved. Unfortunately, in several cases in the recent past this has proved to be the case,” CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat wrote.
Introducing the ‘Strategic’ Projects Category
With the new set of notifications, the government will have the authority to categorise projects as “strategic”. For a “strategic project”, the government shall disclose no information to the public.
Advocate Zaman Ali, who practices at the Bombay High Court, expressed concerns over the new draft notification’s provision to term some projects as “strategic,” saying that such usage of vague words like projects of strategic consideration can bring any and every project of any threshold under its ambit and this will defeat the entire purpose knowing what the likely impact of this project on environment is going to be.
Changein Criteria for Green Assessment
As per the 2006 EIA notification, building areas of more than 20,000 square metres were mandated to have green assessments. This meant that big construction projects such as shopping malls, multiplexes etc went through added scrutiny.
Now, it’ll be 150,000 m2! That’s the size of an airport!
Transportation of construction materials and actual construction is a huge generator of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.
Projects falling in the category of 20,000 m2 to 50,000 m2 built up area and those with a provisional certificate of green building in category 50,000 m2 to 150,000 m2 are exempted from being placed before the respective expert Appraisal Committee. In the new regime, projects in the 20,000 m2 to 50,000 m2 category need only to prepare an Environment Management Plan (EMP) and can get prior environment permission based on its completeness from the regulatory authority. The requirements of the EMP report are merely objective and basic. There is no mention of performance standard for the project proponent to follow or to bind them for mitigating the environmental impact of the upcoming development.
Public outcry and government action
It is important to note that even though it is a national legislation, the draft was only published in Hindi and English. The Delhi High Court ordered for translated copies of the draft in other scheduled languages, which has not been done yet. This clearly excludes local communities from public participation as they can’t file objections against something they cannot understand. The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has restricted movement and social gatherings. All these factors have made it difficult for people living in rural and tribal areas to participate and share their concerns. They are most often directly impacted by such projects.
The Delhi High court has clarified that the last day to send in objections to this draft notification is the 11th of August 2020. These objections will then be considered by the Union Government before passing the notification.
The authorities have also taken down websites of three national environmental advocacy groups that launched digital campaigns and open letter movements against the notification. The collectives are Fridays For Future, Let India Breathe, and There Is No Earth B. Yash Marwah, environmental activist and founder of Let India Breathe, criticised the proposed draft saying, “The government still has the time to withdraw, rethink and finalise a stringent law to serve the natural resources of the country, especially post COVID-19 when the world is rethinking conservation.”
The article has been constructed by collaborating data from the following sources.