India’s Environment Impact Assessment draft is vexing a lot of people — these are the arguments against it

India’s Environment Impact Assessment draft is vexing a lot of people — these are the arguments against it
  • The EIA draft notification is seeking to overhaul the norms governing environmental clearances granted to all kinds of development and industrial projects in the country.
  • Nearly 50 environmental groups and activists from Himachal Pradesh have opposed this draft notification.
  • Experts argue this notification has been amended several times in the last two decades in favour of 'easing the norms' for business.
The threat of climate change is real and it is here. However if one has to go by the latest proposal of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) draft, we are setting ourselves up for a severe crisis. This new proposal, if it goes through, will bring about a landmark change in the way that clearances are obtained in India, and dilute environmental protection in the country.

With the deadline to submit suggestions for the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) policy just a day away, we take a look at why this proposal is at the centre of many controversies and why critics want the government to withdraw it.

What is draft EIA 2020 proposing?
The EIA notification, first issued in 1994, makes it mandatory for project developers not only to study the socio-economic, ecological and other impacts of a proposed project but also place them in front of the affected communities for their opinions and objections.

The latest draft has raised concerns because it will render the EIA process as a mere formality. Here are some of the proposals that have raised a red flag:

  • To allow for post-facto approvals, for projects that have been started illegally
  • Over 40 industries have been exempted from public consultation and the EIA process. This includes petroleum, mines, dams, highways etc.
  • Restricts the role played by experts and scientists in the clearance process
  • To allow digital environmental clearances that could compromise the due diligence process
  • No wildlife clearance is required for projects which do not need environmental clearance
  • Prior wildlife clearance will be required by projects located within 10 km of national park/wildlife sanctuary where eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) has not been notified and which need environmental clearance.
  • It also said that NBWL's standing committee approval will be required for projects that are located in areas linking one protected area to another like tiger reserves.
However, experts argue, this notification has been amended several times in the last two decades in favour of 'easing the norms' for business. They also reckon that this draft misuses the power given to the central government by the Environment Protection Act, to take any measures to “protect and improve the quality of the environment.”

Draft EIA 2020: The arguments against it
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Sunday urged people to protest the new Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 draft, saying it was "dangerous" and if notified, the long term consequences will be "catastrophic". Gandhi alleged that the aim of the EIA 2020 draft was clear — "loot of the nation".

"This (EIA) is another dreadful example of what the BJP government has been doing for its select suit-boot 'friends' who loot the resources of the country," Gandhi alleged.

The turf between the government and critics got ugly when local authorities in Delhi blocked the content of the website — an Indian version of the global youth campaign run by Greta Thunberg — citing that the website is “dangerous for the peace, tranquillity and sovereignty of the (sic) India.”

The Fridays for Future India had launched a virtual campaign against EIA norms — which allowed people to send their argument to Union Minister Prakash Javadekar.

These are not the only people criticizing EIA. Environment Lawyer Ritwick Dutta told Mongabay India that the draft is not in line with the principles of environmental protection.

“Instead of focusing on ensuring the protection of the environment, the draft EIA 2020 undermines the orders of the National Green Tribunal which had ruled against post-facto approvals. The purpose of this notification is to legitimise illegalities done by industries. It seems to be emphasizing that an industrial project that has violated environmental rules will have a right to seek approval for it as long as that project is permissible in the area. It is a mockery of the law,”

Amar Patnaik, Rajya Sabh MP and CAG official, too criticised the law saying “this new draft would come as a major embarrassment to the country in the international stage,”

“India must draw inspiration from countries like Singapore and Denmark that consistently top the charts in both ease of doing business and environment performance indices,” he wrote.

Apart from that, nearly 50 environmental groups and activists from Himachal Pradesh have opposed a draft environmental impact assessment (EIA) notification, saying that it was an attempt to dilute the environmental regulations to facilitate ease-of-doing-business.

"The reduction of the time prior to public hearing from 30 to 20 days is also highly objectionable. In the given 30 day period itself, the information about public hearings does not reach all the affected people which are often spread out widely in case of mountains with some project-affected communities residing in remote and inaccessible terrains," Green activists wrote in a letter to the government.

Another activist, Prakash Bhandari of Himdhara Collective said it was shocking that the amendments include allowing post-facto clearance, which means that the project proponent can start work before they have obtained environmental clearance.

Assam Congress president Ripun Bora too urged the Centre to withdraw the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020, saying that it exempts a long list of projects from public consultation.

“Linear projects such as roads and pipelines in border areas will not require any public hearing and this would cover much of the Northeast India, which is a repository of one of the country's richest biodiversity,” Bora said in a letter to the Secretary of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest

What is EIA?
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a process of evaluating the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project or development, taking into account inter-related socio-economic, cultural and human-health impacts, both beneficial and adverse.

On March 23, this year, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) published a draft notification on Environmental Impact Assessment and sought objections or suggestions from members of the public. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government extended the notice period until June 30 initially. This was further extended till August 11, after much deliberation by the Environment Ministry.

(With PTI and IANS)

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