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Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2020: Reflections and the way forward

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Simi Mehta

Following are the event excerpts of IMPRI webinar on Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2020: Reflections and the way forward

Economic development and Job creation have been India’s daunting challenges and a paramount priority. Since 2014 India has seen a consistent hike in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking from 142nd (2014) to 63rd position in 2019 out of 190 countries. Yet during the same time frame, India has seen a successive downturn in the rank from 155th (2014) to 168th (2019) position on the Environmental Performance Index.

According to the rankings of the Global Climate Risk Index 2020, India is the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change. This manifest polarity propounds the mandate for substantial national sustainability efforts in the appraisal of development activities and projects with due contemplation to Environmental condition and Ecosystem vitality.

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) on 23rd March 2020 released the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020, which turned out to be a highly debated topic for the past few months. The provisions and clauses of the Draft raise concerns over its transparency and making public participation unrealistic and unfeasible, while on the flip side vindicating post facto environmental clearances amid other problematic provisions.

By taking the above circumstances into consideration, 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 India Water Portal as Media Partner organised a talk on Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2020: Reflections and the way forward.

Draft Environmental Impact Assessment

Dr D Raghunandan, Former President, All India People’s Science Network shared that actions were made in corporate interest over the natural environment and livelihood of people, especially on those who are dependent on these natural resources. Extremely poor implementation and monitoring along with weak capability of Pollution Control Boards has weakened environmental regulations.

He believes, present draft seeks to bypass the rulings of judicial bodies in a de jure manner. There has been a wholesale reclassification of projects as A, B1 and B2 where large numbers of projects were placed under B2 category under which no approval or public hearing is required. Whereas, this B2 category was originally meant for artisanal groups such as potters.  

He stated that strategic projects should also be subjected to environmental appraisal and information with regard to strategic projects should be a matter of public concern. Post facto clearance is the most egregious provision of the draft EIA 2020 and it goes against the rulings of Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal. The draft marks a big shift to centralised environmental process where even the State Impact Assessment Authority is constituted by the Centre. This has reduced transparency and slashed accountability, dismantling the environment regulations.

Prof Sucharita Sen, Professor, Centre for the study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi shared draft EIA 2020 has made a significant dent in the social contract made by the state with its citizens to protect their lives and livelihood. The draft also violates the Environmental Protection Act, 1986 which pledges to protect and improve the environment. The days of public hearing is reduced from 30 to 20 days.

She believes that 30 days is a very minimal time period 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. 99.9 percent of violation cases were brought to authorities by citizens and action groups. Also, most of the development projects are urban centric and large number of irrigation projects, Inland navigation and other projects are outside the ambit of EIA. Post factor approvals of Environmental Clearance pre-empts the possibility of rejection and enhance the industry to pay for violations. Lack of information leads to 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.

Mr Leo Saldanha, Founding Trustee and Coordinator, Environment Support Group, Bangalore shared that Public hearing was not made mandatory till 1997 EIA notification and were held at the discretion of administration. The 1997 EIA notification marked the beginning of democratization of Environment clearance.

The public hearing provisions in the draft notification has completely abandoned the great promise in 243 z(d) and 243 z(e) of the Constitution, which deals with district planning committees and metro political planning committee. EIA as an instrument has always been manipulated to political will. Environment governance should be nested with rural and urban governance.

He highlighted that the National Environment Policy dictum was to follow the recommendations of Govindrajan Committee which says that environmental clearances act as a hindrance to development. The Draft EIA 2020 suppresses the rights of people especially adivasis and coastal communities.

“Draft EIA is India’s Environment George Floyd’s movement”, said Mr.Ashish Kothari, Founder-member, Kalpavriksh, Pune. Environment regulatory regime in India has always been very weak. Environment has been considered nominal when compared to the notions of development. Mr. Kothari shared that the root of both words “economy” and “ecology” is ‘oikos’ which means ‘house’. We have to challenge the notion of development at any cost. It is necessary to rethink about development, progress or wellbeing in the ambit of environmental ecosystem and we need to relearn from indigenous people to respect the environment.

Notion of environmental justice has not been a part of the draft EIA 2020. Environmental degradation is intertwined with issues of social and economic injustice. Mr Kothari highlighted that the Sustainable Development Goals 8 of Economic Growth is inherently contradictory given the fact that economic growth has caused global environment problems. There is a steady increase in the merging of state and private entities and the resources are taken away from the communities who have managed it for centuries. The present neoliberal democracy eminently suits the capitalistic unsustainable models of environment. 

Prof Kamna Sachdeva, Head of Department and Associate Professor, Department of Energy and Environment, TERI SAS, New Delhi shared that, way forward the Draft EIA notification 2020 should be taken as an opportunity to strengthen the monitoring mechanism and all the particulars related to the same should be released in public domain.

Ms Madhu Sarin, Environmentalist and Land Rights Activist and Member, Campaign for Survival and Dignity highlighted that the draft empowers pro-state rather than empowering grassroots democratic institutions. The draft weakens the public consultation process and fails to recognise the importance of different resources to different communities considering the inequalities in society.

Mr Ajit Kumar Singh, Additional District and Sessions Judge, Bihar and Secretary, Bihar Judicial Services Association shared that the public has the right to clean environment under article 21 of the Constitution. Article 48A obligates the state to endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forest and wildlife of the country. It is heavily criticised that environmental concerns take a backseat while development concerns were given priority.

The Environment Ministry received 1.8 million views of public suggestions which show the concerns of the public towards the provisions of the draft. Mr 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 the post facto clearances are antithetical to Environment Jurisprudence and is detrimental to the environment.

Even if Environment clearance is rejected ultimately for the project, the damage done to the environment would be irretrievable. Democratic process can be strengthened only by promoting the participation of public. The legal framework of the Environmental Protection Act, 1986 and judicial pronouncements should be considered before releasing the final draft.    

Prof Brajesh Kumar Dubey, Associate Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur highlighted that the draft EIA notification 2020 should be made in a more pragmatic manner and both ecology and environment should be balanced justly and fairly.

Ms Sara Suresh, student of Symbiosis Law School, Pune shared the report “City in the Forest: The Birth and Growth of Indian Institute of Technology-Madras”   by Chennai Solidarity Group in 2013 which states that during the time period of 2001-2013, IIT Madras has acquired 52 acres of land and constructed 37 building without obtaining any statutory clearances for cutting of trees and diverted use of forests. Later the regulatory authorities granted EC to the institution after accepting an apology from them.

Ms Suresh also highlighted that the draft mandates the project proponent to submit compliance report once in a year which seems problematic taking in account the incidents of LG Polymers in Vishakhapatnam, Vapi in Gujarat, Oil India Limited blowout in Assam and illegal mining in the forest of Dehing Patkai Elephant reserve.

Dr. Arjun KumarDirector, IMPRI pointed out that most of the powers remain with the parastatal agencies and are not decentralised to Urban local bodies and local self governance. He also shared that special purpose vehicles were kept out of the ambit of smart city mission and public consultation was not carried out in reality. National Infrastructure pipeline which cost around 110 lakh crores and include more than 7000 projects where handed over to parastatal agencies.

 Dr Walter Fernandes, Director, North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati shared that draft EIA Notification 2020 paves way for Centralisation of power by streamlining the people, who are the real stakeholders of the environment. Under this draft people are not given a chance to participate and report their concerns. Dr Fernandes highlighted that a weak Environmental Impact Assessment has been weaker through this draft and this situation demands massive mobilisation of people. There exists no shortcut to protect the livelihood of people and environment. Both these aspects are interlinked and the draft fails to consider the same.

YouTube Video for Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2020: Reflections and the way forward

Picture Courtesy: National Herald

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