The draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 has invited the ire of environmental experts across the country, and the public at large who are seeking its withdrawal as the notification dilutes the sanctity of India's Environment Protection Act of 1986, according to the protesting groups.
Experts believe that the new draft is a watered-down version of India’s environmental protection rules and it does not bode well for a country that is already battling a severe depletion of natural resources like forests, water bodies, and rivers. India is now the second most polluted country in the world, air pollution is affecting the health of millions and the impact of climate change has been unprecedented. It is therefore evident that India cannot afford a law that allows for economic development at the cost of the environment.
What is the 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.
Environment impact assessment covers activities like mining, infrastructure projects, power plants, real estate construction, and other industrial projects. Projects are granted or denied environmental clearance based on their potential impact on the environment.
What makes the Draft EIA 2020 contentious?
Here’s what the experts think:
Vimlendu Jha, Environmentalist: The draft EIA 2020, is in complete violation of principles set in Environment Protection Act 1986, to safeguard the interest of our environment and its resources and create checks and balances so as to not have a repeat of Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984, the primary trigger behind setting up of India's first environment act. This EIA draft is nothing but a compendium of sorts, a manual on how to plunder the environment and create a false binary around ecology and economy, the irony is that it's propagated by the first custodian of our environment, MOEFCC.
No impact assessment required?
India splits projects which require Environmental Clearance into Category A, Category B1, and Category B2 based on their presumed impact on the environment.
Category A: Capital-intensive projects like thermal power projects and airports that have the highest impact on the environment are assessed by the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
Category B1: Projects with lesser environmental impact.
Category B2: With the least environmental impact.
Projects under category B are cleared by the State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities.
The draft EIA 2020 has downgraded some key industries or sectors that required a full assessment earlier to category B.
Some projects that would be in the ‘Red’ and ‘Orange’ zone have now been moved from Category A (needing expert appraisal) to Category B1 or B2, which have a more lenient EIA process. In addition, B2 industries do not need public consultation or EAC reports.
Vimlendu Jha, Environmentalist: In the garb of 'ease of doing business', the current draft allows several red and orange category industries that are highly toxic, to begin work without environment clearance (EC) or public consultation, including mining, thermal power plants, chemical industries, cement factories, etc. Several categories of polluting industries have been exempted from seeking Environmental clearance, they can choose to self-report of their own environmental violations.
Big concerns: Ex post facto environmental clearance and reduction in the time for a project’s environmental appraisal?
The note paves the road for an ex post facto clearance route for projects as it allows those in violation of the Environment Protection Act (EPA) to apply for clearance. This gives a legal sanction to projects that have been running without EIA approval, according to environmental experts.
Polash Mukherjee, Environmental Expert: The amendment allows for ex post facto environmental clearance to be given to projects that have been initiated without an EIA in place. This can potentially enable a larger number of violations and puts the onus on compliance on the government/regulator, rather than the project owner/polluter.
It also reduces the time for project environmental appraisal from 60 days to 45 days. In addition, it exempts specific "expansion projects" from EIA and public hearing requirements and adds new categories of projects that are exempt from EIA.
Vimlendu Jha, Environmentalist: Post facto EC has been sanctioned, which basically means that you can continue without any environment clearance. Moreover, the provision of ‘Public Consultation’ for many categories of projects have been removed, wherefore affected people or communities and other civil society groups can't raise their opinion against a polluting project in their backyard, prior to the commencement of the project or post that.
What makes it worse, construction of flyovers and elevated roads inside national parks and wildlife sanctuaries are allowed without public consultation, up to > 1,50,000 sq. metres.
The validity of environmental clearance for developmental projects has been rejigged, a potential threat to the ecosystem?
Experts are concerned as the EIA notification extends the validity of approvals in some critical sectors like mining and heavy industries, which could potentially increase the risk of environmental damage.
Polash Mukherjee, Environmental Expert: The amendment proposes to increase the validity of environmental clearances (EC) for a specific project by about 40-70%. Longer validities often mean that the onus for conformity of the project with the conditions stipulated during application for EC falls on the government/regulator, with fewer checks/balances mechanisms. Given that there have been existing cases of violations observed with shorter EC validity, increasing this weakens the EIA act rather than strengthening it.
Vimlendu Jha, Environmentalist: The amendment allows mining below 5 hectares without any EAC approval, also mining license validity will now be valid for 50 years rather than 30 years earlier.
The Draft EIA 2020 in English a roadblock to universal feedback?
The fact that the note asks for the draft to be presented to the public only in English leaves out a large majority of the country that has no access to the language, opine experts.
Polash Mukherjee, Environmental Expert: Procedures for EIA are weak as it is, with several alleged cases of violations in critical public hearing having surfaced in the past. The amendment further weakens it, by measures such as requiring the project proponent to make the draft EIA report available to the public only in English and not in regional languages. Further, the amendment proposes that this report be made available for electronic inspection only on a written request, at a notified place, and during office hours, making it harder to access for a large number of stakeholders.
August 11 was the last day for the public to submit their comments and feedback on the draft proposals to MoEFCC, after the notification was placed in the public domain in March. Activists are of the opinion that in its current form the policy will allow large industries & mega development projects to escape environmental accountability.
As the country awaits the final policy to be released by the government, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, said that the criticism of the Environmental Impact Assessment, 2020, was “premature”, as the document was merely a draft at this stage. He said the ministry will consider the suggestions it has received and then prepare a final draft. He added, “As per rules, only 60 days’ notice is to be given, but owing to Covid-19, we extended it up to 150 days. Thousands have sent their views, but some are overeager and hence they are protesting. People jumping at the draft