The Indian government is planning to initiate a bunch of new policies in various governing areas. The new draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) policy 2020 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is an important component of the newly drafted policies. The new draft is a departure from the EIA, 2006.
The EIA helps in comprehending necessary environmental safeguards by assessing environmental impacts due to proposed industrial or infrastructural projects (mining of coal and other minerals, thermal, nuclear and hydro-power projects and real estate) that require ‘Prior Environment Clearance’ at the planning stage itself. Through this new policy, the Indian government is trying to make the process more transparent and expedient through implementation of an online system, further delegation, rationalisation and standardisation of the process. However, on the flipside, there are concerns that the draft is actually serving a pro-business or pro-industry agenda that will violate environmental concerns in future.
The EIA restricts a proposed industrial or infrastructural activity from being approved without accurate assessment. It seeks to prevent any adverse consequence to the environment and society. The two most significant changes in the new EIA draft are provisions for a ‘Post-Facto Clearance’ of projects. It means any project that comes up without environmental safeguards or clearances can still carry on their operations. It is actually a move away from the National Green Tribunal orders. Disapproving the ‘Post-Facto Clearance’, clause, the Supreme Court of India said that this is contrary to the present law.
In the new draft, there is a list of projects categorised as ‘strategic’. These are exempted from the assessment procedure. Any information related to these ‘strategic’ projects will not be shared in the public domains. All inland waterways and national highway projects, coupled with construction projects of up to 1,50,000 sq. m. are too excluded from public consultations. At a time when climate change is a major concern, this new move can invite environmental wrongdoings. This can clash with the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition or the Rehabilitation and Resettlement (RFCTLARR) Act, 2013.
Sandip Mukhopadhyay, Head of the Department, Marine Science, University of Calcutta, told BE, “The need to revise the EIA is important but necessarily it should put more stringent regulations than relaxing the existing ones. Massive industrialisation is linked with degradation of biodiversity and soil while affecting the groundwater adversely. Science must play the intermediate role between industrialisation and the environment and the EIA is an effective tool in ensuring that. Legitimising the ‘Post-Facto Clearance’ will essentially stand as a break for sustainable development.”
Along with major environmentalists, major opposition parties like the Indian National Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) aired their criticisms against the draft. Jairam Ramesh, the former Indian environment minister wrote a letter to Prakash Javadekar, the present Indian environment minister stating, “It gives the Union government full powers to appoint the State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority. This is yet another nail in the coffin of cooperative federalism.” He added that the increased validity of environmental clearances will also allow a project to hold the land even if the project is not implemented.
No lesson from history
In the wake of the infamous Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984, the then central government enacted the Environment (Protection) Act in 1986. Under this Act, the government notified the country’s first EIA norms in 1994 to assess industrial activities related to access, utilisation and polluting materials. During 2006, the existing EIA was upgraded. But the new draft EIA, 2020 is being judged at a time when the country has again experienced the Vishakhapatnam gas leak incident at LG Polymers. Visakhapatnam LG Polymers was allegedly operating without proper clearances. In May, the Tinsukia or Baghjan gas leak at an oil field of Oil India Ltd. in Assam also left the country in shock. The oil field is located next to the Dibru-Saikhowa national park - a home to many endemic species. There are still a number of industries operating without accurate clearances.
Industries are presently required to submit environment compliance reports twice a year. If the new draft gets passed, they will be required to submit it only once a year. This will lead to more violations.
There is another significant loophole concerning submitting compliance reports and that is environmentalists or common citizens cannot report their grievances for violation of rules. The draft policy states, “The cognizance of the violation shall be made on the suo-moto application of the project proponent.” It is highly unexpected that the project proponents or their regulatory authorities themselves will report environmental violations if they make any.
Environment impact assessment seeks to initiate projects that would take the path of sustainable development. At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the world is now more vocal about environmental issues and trying to reduce industrial pollution levels. But the proposed EIA by the Indian government is a clear slip from that. India’s Sustainable Development Goal, 2030 will undoubtedly be thrashed if the proposed draft is passed. Concerned environmentalists and state governments will submit their suggestions to the draft. Professor Mukhopadhyay commented, “The last date for submitting the review was August 11. But the government will extend the time as we did not get enough time to review the matter.” The Supreme Court has also stayed contempt proceedings in the Delhi High Court alleging ‘willful disobedience’ of its order against the Union Government to publish the draft EIA in all 22 languages of Schedule-8.