Humanity is nearing the brink of impending collapse and has been subjected to nature’s fury countless times but we learn nothing. Floods and new diseases like Covid19 due to rampant deforestation, landslides due to irresponsible mining, earthquakes due to increasing dams and the list just goes on. An accurate study done on the manmade factors responsible for the 2018 Kerala Floods can be read here.
Development is our sole purpose as we are the most superior and intelligent beings. We consider the Earth to be the reservoir of humans and we have been exploiting its resources since time immemorial. It was in the wake of Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984, one of the most horrible industrial disasters, that the Environment Protection Act of 1986 was enacted by the Government of India as per Article 253 of the Constitution. This Law is directly related to the decisions taken at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment conducted in Sweden in 1972.
In India, the EIA Notification was first promulgated on 27 January 1994 by the then Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, under the Environmental (Protection) Act 1986. This made Environmental Clearance (EC) mandatory for both new projects as well as existing ones needing expansion as per the list in Schedule 1 of the notification.
So what exactly does the Environment Impact Assessment means?
UNEP defines Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as “a tool used to identify the environmental, social and economic impacts of a project prior to decision-making. It aims to predict environmental impacts at an early stage in project planning and design, find ways and means to reduce adverse impacts, shape projects to suit the local environment and present the predictions and options to decision-makers“.
In simple words, EIA is integral for sustainable development. Amidst the growing development needs, more and more Earth resources are under a lot of pressure some of which directly impact the Earth’s geological and atmospheric structure. Therefore, it is more than relevant in today’s time.
India and EIA
Though the official EIA notification was announced in 1994 which included Public Participation as a major element, it was in 1976-77, that the Planning Commission asked the Department of Science and Technology to evaluate the river valley projects with respect to their environmental impacts. Thus the importance of sustaining ecological balance amidst a growing economy was well understood. However, in due course, the Notification and its contents have been diluted.
The 2006 Environment Impact Assessment Notification merged the multiple steps laid down by the 1994 notification into 4 principle stages which are cyclical in nature namely:
- Public Hearing
Also, the projects are further divided into Category A (National Level Appraisal) and Category B (State Level Appraisal). The latter is subdivided into B1 and B2 projects with projections screened under B2 category not requiring any kind of Environmental Clearance.
Draft EIA 2020 Notification – Why is it in news?
On March 23, 2020, as the world was bracing up to fight the pandemic, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2020 to replace the existing 2006 Notification. A number of crucial elements of the Notification have been altered/deleted altogether making the entire assessment process more conducive to businesses rather than the majority stakeholders including the environment itself.
The deadline to submit Public Opinion on the Draft EIA Notification, 2020 has been extended to August 11, 2020 by the Delhi High Court. Do Your Bit Now to save Mother Earth!
Problematic Modifications with Serious Environmental Repercussions
Post Facto Approval
The most contentious of all changes proposed is to legalize the existing ventures that have bypassed the Environmental Clearance route and are functioning illegally. Here, the notification is ignoring the Precautionary Principle, which is the cornerstone of all Environmental Laws all over the world.
Environmental damage, most of the times, is irreparable and therefore Environmental Assessments help to evaluate the risks associated while also plan for possible mitigation processes. If the Post Facto Approval is made legal, then there won’t be any fear on the part of organizations to begin projects without any clearance. Compensation amounting to 150,000 a year for companies making profits in crores is simply a mockery of the Law.
In fact, the Supreme Court on 1st April 2020, declared the very notion of “ex post facto environmental clearances” as being contrary to law.
Take the example of the recent gas leak accident of LG Polymer in Visakhapatnam, which was conducting its operations for decades without any proper environmental clearance and was one of the applicants for the Post Facto Clearance.
2. Public Consultation
Public Consultation is the process that makes public participation possible which further leads to development accounting the needs of everyone and not just a few. The draft notification weakens this democratic aspect by increasing the list of projects not requiring the Public Consultation process.
Besides, it also plans to exempt certain projects citing Strategic Considerations which is a vague term. The Government can label any project as being ‘Strategic’ and keep the masses out of its ambit.
Stipulated Response Time Cut Short
While earlier, the time given to the common people to study the EIA Report was 30 days before the Public Hearing took place, it has been shortened to 20 days. Though it is a major blow to the possibility of Active Participation of all public, it will be severely detrimental to the people directly taking the brunt of development/construction activities in their immediate vicinities.
Consider the tribals or the poor for whom studying a 1000 page report in a non-local language with no proper access to technology or other resources is already an excruciating task. How are they supposed to gather information, study, evaluate, form small groups and provide their recommendations in written or oral form; everything in a matter of 20 days? It seems the time duration has been altered with strategic interests in mind.
Nonsensical Precedent to Rule of Law
As per the Draft Notification, in the event of violations, only the Government Representatives or the Project Proponents themselves have the right to report them. This is purely nonsensical as it believes the criminal to go and report against themselves following a crime done by them. This is a ridicule of the entire Rule of Law established under the Constitution.
Scope of EIA Diminished
Defence and security-related projects are already exempt from any kind of regulation laid down by the existing EIA which is completely justified. However, the notification’s new proposal stating projects with up to 150,000 sq. km to be exempt from the EIA process keeps a number of Real Estate constructions safe from all kinds of socio-economic and environmental implications. This means only the large constructions projects will be scrutinised whereas the rest will be free to downplay all environmental factors.
Monitoring Time Intervals
While the existing Notification makes it compulsory to provide bi-yearly reports, the Draft EIA Notification halves that time to once a year. This is crucial considering the importance of these reports that have the ability to prevent or mitigate a possible disaster in the future.
It also increases the validity period of the approvals given which in turn can be detrimental for certain sections like the mining industry as it directly affects the Earth’s seismic activity.
Lessons from the Pandemic and the Assam Gas Leak
A lot of scientific research in recent months has identified the creation of new interfaces that are leading to more and more zoonotic infections to spread among the people. A major factor being Deforestation as the intact habitats are disturbed which causes unnatural transmission of new and emerging viruses and bacteria.
Another example is the Oil India Limited’s recent gas leak due to an explosion in their production well in Baghjan, Assam. In spite of being just km away from the biodiversity-rich Dibru Saikhowa National Park, which houses certain endemic species, an Environmental Clearance was given to the company for its drilling and testing activities just days before.
How should the Government define Development in their dictionary?
The Government should consider Development to be an inclusive process that takes care of all stakeholders. Just celebrating World Environment Day every year will not reverse the damage. Sustainable Development should be made compulsory and not an option. We need to strengthen our natural defences for the upcoming climate change-related disasters; three of which we have already experienced this year – The Swarm Attack, Cyclone Nisarga and Cyclone Amphan. We are losing wetlands, forests and grasslands at a far more rapid rate which eventually will backfire all the development we are doing right now ignoring Environment’s natural cycle.
So please do your bit and help in scrapping the controversial sections of Draft Environmental Impact Assessment, 2020 by sending your opinions to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC).