Background for the present Environment Impact Assessment (EIA):
A signatory to the Stockholm Declaration (1972) on Environment, India enacted laws to control water (1974) and air (1981) pollution soon after. But it was only after the Bhopal gas leak disaster in 1984 that the country legislated an umbrella Act for environmental protection in 1986.
Under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, India notified its first EIA norms in 1994, setting in place a legal framework for regulating activities that access, utilise, and affect (pollute) natural resources. Every development project has been required to go through the EIA process for obtaining prior environmental clearance ever since.
The 1994 EIA notification was replaced with a modified draft in 2006. Earlier this year, the government redrafted it again to incorporate the amendments and relevant court orders issued since 2006, and to make the EIA “process more transparent and expedient.”
The Union Ministry of Environment has been in the spotlight on more than one occasion during the pandemic, as it worked to push through retrograde environmental decisions in an atmosphere of general paralysis.
In April, Environment Minister used a virtual conference to ensure that the National Board for Wildlife’s Standing Committee stamped its approval on several projects, with serious implications for conservation.
He now wants to hurriedly make a fundamental change to the process of project approvals, by introducing a new Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification.
What is Environment Impact Assessment (EIA)?
Environmental Impact Assessment or EIA is the process or study which predicts the effect of a proposed industrial/infrastructural project on the environment.
It prevents the proposed activity/project from being approved without proper oversight or taking adverse consequences into account.
Importance of EIA:
EIA links environment with development for environmentally safe and sustainable development.
EIA provides a cost-effective method to eliminate or minimize the adverse impact of developmental projects.
EIA enables the decision makers to analyse the effect of developmental activities on the environment well before the developmental project is implemented.
EIA encourages the adaptation of mitigation strategies in the developmental plan.
EIA makes sure that the developmental plan is environmentally sound and within the limits of the capacity of assimilation and regeneration of the ecosystem.
Why is India’s new EIA draft problematic?
- India’s new EIA draft has been widely criticised for its problematic changes in rules. Experts say most of the provisions in the new draft of EIA proves to be a regressive departure from the earlier version.
- The 2020 draft offers no remedy for the political and bureaucratic stronghold on the EIA process, and thereby on industries.
- Instead, it proposes to bolster the government’s discretionary power while limiting public engagement in safeguarding the environment.
- While projects concerning national defence and security are naturally considered strategic, the government gets to decide on the “strategic” tag for other projects.
- The 2020 draft says no information on “such projects shall be placed in the public domain”. This opens a window for summary clearance for any project deemed strategic without having to explain why.
- Additionally, the new draft exempts a long list of projects from public consultation.
- For example, linear projects such as roads and pipelines in border areas will not require any public hearing. The ‘border area’ is defined as “area falling within 100 kilometres aerial distance from the Line of Actual Control with bordering countries of India.”
- That would cover much of the Northeast, the repository of the country’s richest biodiversity.
Criticism to the Draft:
Now in draft, it seeks to replace the existing EIA notification of 2006:
- The proposed provisions show that the Ministry has gone to great lengths to reduce or even remove public participation, and by extension independent expert opinion, from the process of granting environmental clearances; public reporting of violations may also not be taken cognisance of.
- Section 26 provides a list of projects that would not attract environmental clearance or permission, including coal mining and seismic surveys for oil, methane and shale gas on some lands.
- Section 14 provides exemption for these and some other projects from public consultation, also limiting the scope of public involvement to the districts concerned, in the case of national parks and sanctuaries where pipeline infrastructure will pass. Roads and highways get liberal concessions.
- Further, it retains the clause that if a public agency or authority considers the local situation not conducive to participation by citizens, the public consultation need not include a public hearing.
- In spite of the far-reaching nature of its proposed actions, the Centre has displayed unseemly haste to get them in place and government has not aided credibility by trying to shut down public responses to the draft early. It took a Delhi High Court order to extend the deadline to August 11.
- The exercise has been further muddied by the mysterious blocking of some activist websites calling for the EIA proposal to be dropped, and demanding a new approach towards conserving natural resources for future generations.
A study of coal mining clearances shows that 4,302 hectares of forest were diverted during 2014-18, favouring extraction over conservation.
Grow now, sustain later should not be the policy, as the notion is dangerously tilted against the concept of sustainable development.
COVID-19 has powerfully demonstrated the value of nature for well-being: of lost forests and captured wildlife bringing virus reservoirs closer to humans and foul air destroying their health.
While there might be a case for some changes, much of the proposed EIA system can only make things worse, and should not be pushed through.
The ministry, instead of reducing the time for public consultation, should focus on ensuring access to information as well as awareness about the public hearing and its impact upon the whole EIA process.
In order to improve ease of doing business, the government should bring down the average delay of 238 days in granting environmental clearance, that emanates from bureaucratic delays and complex laws.