The new draft Environment Impact Assessment notification will limit the principle of public participation in environmental clearances, warns conservation biologist Neha Sinha
India issued the country’s first Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification in 1994, under the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA) of 1986. This was later replaced by a modified draft in 2006. In both forms, the EIA performs the important function of assessing and regulating the impact of new projects on the environment.
A new draft of the EIA has been proposed by the Union government this year, which includes certain problematic and contentious changes in rules. One of these is the provision that projects can receive clearance post-facto, i.e. a project operating in violation of the EPA can now apply for clearance. This is despite an 1 April Supreme Court order that held such clearances as contrary to law.The new draft also exempts a long list of projects as outside the purview of the EIA, including any project the government deems to label as "strategic". The draft says that no information on "such projects shall be placed in the public domain". The exempt list also includes all inland waterways and national highways projects. The other point of concern is that construction projects of up to 150,000 sq. m shall be exempt from EIAs.
The public consultation process for the draft EIA itself has been dogged by controversy. The mandatory public feedback window was originally set to expire on 10 June, but the environment ministry had set the new deadline to 10 August because of a delay in publishing the draft in the Gazette due to the pandemic. However, environment minister Prakash Javadekar overruled the ministry to set the new deadline for 30 June. On 30 July, the Delhi high court set the new deadline to 11 August, while hearing a petition which sought an extension to the 30 June deadline.
In light of this development, Mint spoke to conservation biologist and author Neha Sinha on the need for EIAs, the problems with the new draft and why the environment should be a matter of concern to every citizen. Sinha works on environmental law and policy with special respect to the Environment Impact Assessment, the Wildlife (Protection) Act and the Wetland Rules. Edited excerpts.
What makes the draft Environment Impact Assessment provision so problematic?
First of all, the EIAs done today in India are not great. A lot of them are cut/copy/paste jobs. But that doesn’t mean that the existing law itself is bad. The draft EIA notification tries to dismantle the core idea that an assessment should be done before a project starts. One of the provisions of the new draft is that projects that have come up illegally, that is, projects without environmental clearances can actually be legalized. A committee is going to appraise the project and they may recommend it or they may close it down. On top of that, according to the new draft, violations can only be reported by a government representative or the project proponent, not citizens. So this is akin to someone running a mine and saying that my mine is not good.
There was the case of the Vishakhapatnam gas leak in May where the company LG Polymers was operating without clearances.
That project did not have all the clearances as the company itself admitted subsequently. And why was the project so close to where people lived? Now a good EIA should be looking at all of this. If people can die, should there be a project there? Take the Baghjan gas leak fire in Assam. Now that is next to one of the most biodiverse places, the Dibru-Saikhowa national park. It is home to many restricted range endemic species. Which are basically found in a very small range. So an EIA should look at the impact of the project and this should always be done before a project begins.
Hasn’t the time given to the public to respond to the EIA for a project also been curtailed under the new draft?
Any environmental impact assessment is presented for a public hearing. It apprises the public what the project is going to do, how much waste it'll produce, what they'll do to mitigate the waste, and then you are supposed to record what the public has to say. Currently, people have 30 days to respond. That will be cut down to 20. Now imagine a typical community affected by a new project. It would be a fishing community next to a port, or a tribal community next to a mine. Now expecting a community to look at the project, understand the EIA, which may not even be in the local language, and summarize all the key points, including sending written submissions, within 20 days is a very difficult ask. It’s very little time. A community is not a monolith. It’s not a homogenous entity that will speak in one voice. This new rule weakens the principle of public participation.
The draft notification also has a big bearing on the building and construction sector. What would be the effects of this?
Earlier buildings of 20,000 sq. m or above required an environment clearance after detailed scrutiny by the state level expert appraisal committee. Now it’ll be 150,000 sq. m. That’s the size of an airport! Transportation of construction materials and actual construction is a huge generator of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. If you look at the air pollution data for a city like Delhi, a lot of it is contributed by soil and dust particulate matter. Construction is something that has a direct bearing on air pollution.
Through the lockdown period, the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoFCC) has been in a rush to clear projects. Is the draft EIA notification a part of that same pattern of behaviour?
The self-confessed name of this pattern of behaviour is called "ease of doing business". It’s interesting because the government has made a push for renewable energy (RE). But then you can’t also push for coal, have both clean and dirty energy. Your stimulus package can’t include coal mines when a new NITI Aayog report says that coal is not a good thing to invest in because the prices are volatile in terms of running costs of plants and the import costs of coal. And why would you want
to mine for coal when prices of solar power have really come down? We should be leading on the solar power front, for which India has got international recognition. You can’t adopt new clean habits while still keeping your old, dirty habits.
The new EIA notification would become very important in this push for coal, right? According to the draft, the government can label any project as "strategic" and waive an EIA.
Of course. We are pushing for coal and most of the coal is in the central Indian forests. Now to mine that coal you will need railway lines. There’s a Rs50,000 crore allocation for the transportation of coal. The latest scientific research says that new diseases get created if you have new interfaces. That because of deforestation you end up creating a new situation which has never been seen before. Now leaving a forest intact is one simple way of not creating a new interface. But there seems to be very little trust in science generally.
With the Delhi High Court judgement, how do you see the EIA situation evolving?
What I like is that a lot of people have taken the time to comment on something as complex as the EIA notification. The environment is for everyone. It’s not just for environmentalists. It’s not just for elephants and tigers. I like the fact that there’s a lot of public anger regarding what we’re doing to the environment, while people suffer due to this. It doesn’t end with this notification. I think we need citizens’ involvement in terms of more expertise in reading EIAs themselves. We need to read EIAs, critique them if they’re wrong and we need to give our suggestions during public hearings. We should all get involved. We need more ecological literacy. Urban Indians need to involve themselves in issues beyond our immediate backyards.