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The Draft EIA Notification 2020- A step in the right direction?

According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, 27 million Indians, between the ages of 20-30 years, lost their jobs in the month of April 2020. With a youth population of over 33% of its 1.3 billion people, economic development leading to job creation is one of India’s biggest challenges and a stated priority. As much as economic development and creating jobs is important for a government, preserving environment should be a priority for government. On 23rd March, 2020 as the Nation was prepraring to go into a Nationwide lockdown, the ministry of Environment, Climate and Forest Change issued a The Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020 which seeks to replace the 2006 notification on EIA. Here, Greener Things brings to you FAQ regarding EIA in general and impacts of EIA Notification 2020 on Environment.

What is EIA?

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. The EIA is the outcome of the 1992 Rio Declaration which enables the participation of all stakeholders in matters of environmental importance. The EIA is not an obligation but rather a statute backed (The Environment Protection Act, 1986) duty and has been in force in India since 1994. An obstacle to Industrialists’ aspirations, has been sarcastically termed the ‘Permit Raj’ in the earlier decades. Contrastingly, environmentalists call it the ‘rubber stamp’ as the rejection rate under EIA is nearly zero.

How is the EIA carried out for a specific project:

Assessment of potential environmental impacts of a proposed project ↓ Determination whether the project can be carried out in present form or has to be abandoned/modified ↓ Based on the finding, Expert Appraisal Committee frames the scope and prepares a preliminary report ↓ Publication of the said report and commencement of public consultation process ↓ Objections, if any, raised by the concerned stakeholders ↓ Final report of EAC forwarded to the MoEF, who is obliged to accept this report

What are the salient features of Draft EIA, 2020?

The proposed Draft EIA seeks to replace the 2006 notification of the same name. The rationale behind this step, according to the Government, is to increase transparency and expediency in the EIA process.

Easing your way into the industrial sector:

The notification classifies 43 sectors across three categories-A, B1 and B2 based on maximum threshold limits. Meaning, B projects can omit prior screening requirements. That means a B2 project gets a go-ahead with Prior Environmental Permission; nothing else required be it the EIA report, public appraisal or necessary public engagement. In 2006 notification, 9 categories of industries were barred from complying with the regulations. Over the years, this number increased gradually but the 2020 notification was the final nail in the coffin because this notification exempts 20 major categories of industries from compliance with the regulations, including major toxic effluent treatment plants, cement plants, pharmaceutical industries etc. Moreover, if a project undertakes modernisation or expansion by 10%-50%, then an online approval shall be issued, no prior appraisal required. What does this mean? New entrants gain a hassle-free entry without promising much commitment to safeguard the environment. Current members get to grow their projects. This is good news for businesses, bad news for the environment. In 2016, 100 of India’s industrial areas were categorised as severely or critically polluted. This number is set to grow with many new entrants and too few environmental regulations.

Post Facto Approval:

This means that a clearance can be granted even after commencement of a project despite the fact that environmental clearance has not been sought prior to commencement. This legitimises environmental violations by technically waiving off the same and the only remedy against it is levying a fine. However, a fine would be useless to undo the damage already caused. Moreover this ex-post facto environmental approval is an approach recognised as unsustainable by The Supreme Court of India. A better approach of Precautionary principle should be adopted.

Public Consultation Process:

Effectively reduces the time granted to the public pertaining to an application for environmental clearance from 30 to 20 days. Reduces the public engagement stage to 40 days. This decreases public engagement of the stakeholders in many ways and is in violation of the 1992 Rio Declaration.

How does it decrease the public engagement?

Often the important stakeholders are the forest dwellers who do not have access to worldly information like us. This means that by the time the information reaches them, the project would have proceeded to further clearance procedure due to lack of substantial objections. Weakening the EIA process is essentially anti-democratic. For affected communities, where seismic shifts in the local environment can threaten livelihoods, flood a valley or destroy a forest, public consultation is a referendum on existential threats. Compliance Report: Earlier, the particular project had to submit a report every six months to show that it was in full compliance of the terms on which the permission had been granted. Now this has been increased to one report per year. What does this mean? This affords business a chance to violate the regulations and also have sufficient time to cover up the same. Meaning, reported violations are too less when compared to the actual violations happening on the ground.

New Expert Body:

Taking over from the Environment Ministry, the new Technical Expert Committee shall categorise new projects. Other concerns: The Central Government gets the power to categorise a particular project as ‘strategic’. Once it has been classified so, no information pertaining to it shall be placed in the public domain. This presents a hurdle to free access to information regarding environmental violations concerning a project. Violations can only be reported suo motu by the project proponent, or by a government authority, appraisal committee, or regulatory authority. This is against the principles of natural justice.

Further, it states that the new construction projects up to 1,50,000 square metres (instead of the existing 20,000 square metres) do not need “detailed scrutiny” by the Expert Committee, nor do they need EIA studies and public consultation. One of the biggest polluters in the country, the Construction Industry, is deemed to be one of the biggest beneficiaries as only the largest projects shall come under scrutiny; others are exempt.

What can be the Environmental Impacts if this notification comes into force?

Good News: Since 2014, India has seen a steady rise in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking from 142nd (2014) to 63rd (2019) out of 190 countries. Bad News: During this same time period, India has seen a subsequent decline from 155th (2014) to 177th (2018) out of 180 countries ranked on the Environmental Performance Index. India is currently the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change. India has already lost a third of its coastline, a third of its grasslands and is losing wetlands at the rate of 2-3% per year, thereby weakening our natural defenses to climate-borne disasters.

The clear conclusion, environment is an impediment to business activities. The unequivocal proof: Tinsukhia forest fires and gas leak in Vizag, both projects clearly flouting environmental regulations.

The draft EIA curtails these appraisal procedures tremendously. This reduced level of scrutiny makes the system highly permissive to uncontrolled natural resource extraction and degradation.

Effectively reduces the legal standards of environmental decisions. It aims to block legal remedies available to communities affected by harmful projects that operate beyond the law. The draft notification neutralises whatever hard-won gains made through earlier National Green Tribunal (NGT) rulings or various court orders.

What can be the Way Forward for us to have sustainable development?

The EIA 2020 is designed to deny citizens the social, legal and political forums available to protect the environment from bad government decisions.

The government has invited public consideration and comment on the Draft till 30th June. Knowing how detrimental it shall be for the environment, all of us should resist the same and not let it come to force in its present form. What should the Government do? Focus on increasing public engagement and make it more inclusive and actually transparent. Promote principles of sustainable development extensively for post Covid-19 recovery as the UNEP and various organisations have emphasised.

The lockdown has been an opportune time for many to cause harm to the environment and still go unnoticed. Responsible citizens should be ever vigilant about environmental violations (government backed or otherwise) and must bring the same to public fora.

Author:

Admin ( Nisarg Bhardwaj and Tanvi rahim).

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