Economic development and creation of jobs have been India’s most critical challenges, and continue to be an overriding priority for the government. India’s rise in the World Bank’s global ranking on the ease of doing business is complemented with a successive downturn in its position on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) from 2014 to 2019. According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2020, India is the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change.
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) released the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020 on 23 March 2020, which has been intensely debated. The provisions and clauses of the draft raise concerns over its lack of transparency and how it makes public participation unrealistic and unfeasible. On the flip side, it also vindicates post facto environmental clearances amid other problematic provisions.
With this background, the Center for Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development (CECCSD) at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, and the Department of Energy and Environment at the TERI School of Advanced Studies (TERI SAS), New Delhi, with the India Water Portal as a media partner organised a talk on 'Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2020: Reflections and the Way Forward'.
“The draft EIA notification was brought in the interest of corporates over the natural environment and livelihoods of people, especially of those who are dependent on these natural resources,” said Dr D Raghunandan, Former President, All India People’s Science Network while participating in the discussions held.
Extremely poor implementation and monitoring along with the weak capability of the Pollution Control Boards (PCBs) have weakened the environmental regulations.
The present draft seeks to bypass the rulings of judicial bodies in a de jure manner. There has been a reclassification of projects as A, B1 and B2 where large numbers of projects were placed in the B2 category under which no approval or public hearing is required. The B2 category was originally meant for artisanal groups such as potters.
Strategic projects must be subject to environmental appraisal and related information should be in the public domain. Post facto clearance, an egregious provision of the draft EIA 2020, goes against the rulings of the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
The draft calls for a centralised environmental process where even the State Impact Assessment Authority (SIAA) is constituted by the Centre. This has reduced transparency and slashed accountability, dismantling the environmental regulations.
“The draft EIA 2020 violates the Environmental Protection Act, 1986, which pledges to protect and improve the environment. The new provision for 30 days for comments gives very less time for the people to comprehend all the details and form a collective opinion about the project. The draft doesn’t empower citizens to file violations and non-compliance reports. Citizens and action groups have brought 99.9 per cent of violation cases to authorities,” said Prof Sucharita Sen, Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
“Many development projects are urban-centric and a large number of irrigation projects and inland navigation are outside the ambit of EIA. Post facto approvals of environmental clearance pre-empt the possibility of rejection and enhance the industry to pay for violations. Lack of information leads to a lower level of public accountability. The approval of permission is more ad hoc as it depends on the industries nature of association with the state,” adds Prof Sen.
“Public hearings were not made mandatory till the 1997 EIA notification and were held at the discretion of the administration. The 1997 EIA notification marked the beginning of the democratisation of environment clearance. The public hearing provisions in the draft notification have completely abandoned the great promise in 243 z(d) and 243 z(e) of the Constitution, which deals with district planning committees and metropolitan planning committees. EIA as an instrument has always been manipulated to political will. Environment governance should be nested with rural and urban governance,” said Leo Saldanha, founding trustee and coordinator, Environment Support Group, Bengaluru.
The National Environment Policy dictum was to follow the recommendations of the Govindarajan Committee, which says that environmental clearances act as a hindrance to development. The Draft EIA 2020 suppresses the rights of people, especially the adivasis and coastal communities.
“The outrage that sparked among masses over the draft EIA notification indicates it is India’s George Floyd protests,” said Ashish Kothari, founder-member, Kalpavriksh, Pune. The environment has been considered nominal when compared to the notions of development. There is a need to challenge the notion of development and rethink development, progress and well being in the ambit of the environmental ecosystem.
The notion of environmental justice, which is intertwined with issues of social and economic justice is not a part of the draft EIA notification 2020.
The SDG-8 on economic growth is inherently contradictory since economic growth has caused global environmental problems. There is an increase in the merging of state and private entities and the resources are taken away from the communities who have managed it for centuries.
Ajit Kumar Singh, Additional District and Sessions Judge, Bihar, while highlighting the centralised draft mentioned that Article 48A obligates the state to endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forest and wildlife of the country. The people of this democracy are concerned about the environment as is evident from the fact that 1.8 million public suggestions were received by the MoEFCC on this draft.
Singh highlighted the judgement of the Supreme Court in the case Alembic Pharmaceuticals Ltd v. Rohit Prajapati & Ors, Civil Appeal No. 1526 of 2016, which stated that post facto clearances are antithetical to environment jurisprudence and are detrimental to the environment.
The legal framework of the Environmental Protection Act, 1986 and judicial pronouncements should be considered before releasing the final draft.
Sara Suresh, a student of the Symbiosis Law School, Pune, shared the report 'City in the forest: The birth and growth of Indian Institute of Technology-Madras' by the Chennai Solidarity Group in 2013, which states that between 2001 and 2013, IIT Madras was granted environment clearance by sending a mere apology.
The draft EIA notification mandates the project proponent to submit compliance report once in a year, which seems problematic, as evident by the incidents of LG Polymers in Vishakhapatnam, Vapi in Gujarat, Oil India Limited blowout in Assam and illegal mining in the forests of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve.
“A weak EIA has been made weaker through this draft and this situation demands massive mobilisation of people. There exists no shortcut to protect the environment and the livelihoods of people. Both these aspects are interlinked and the draft fails to consider the same,” said Dr Walter Fernandes, Director, North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati.
Prof Kamna Sachdeva, Associate Professor, Department of Energy and Environment, TERI SAS, New Delhi; Madhu Sarin, Environmentalist and Land Rights Activist and Member, Campaign for Survival and Dignity; and Prof Brajesh Kumar Dubey, Associate Professor, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, also participated in the discussions.
Arjun Kumar is Director, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi and China-India Visiting Scholar Fellow, Ashoka University.