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Draft EIA Notification, 2020

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June 27, 2020

What is the issue?

  • The government has put up for public consideration and comment the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020.
  • The draft is seen as an attempt to weaken environmental regulation and silence the affected communities.

What is EIA?

  • The EIA process scrutinises the potential environmental impact of a project.
  • It looks into the negative externalities of a proposed project i.e. before commencement.
  • It then determines whether it can be carried out in the form proposed, or whether it is to be abandoned or modified.

How does it work?

  • The assessment is carried out by an Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC).
  • The EAC consists of scientists and project management experts.
  • The EAC frames the scope of the EIA study and a preliminary report is prepared.
  • The report is published, and a public consultation process takes place.
  • During consultation, objections can be heard including from project-affected people.
  • The EAC can then make a final appraisal of the project.
  • It is then forwarded to the regulatory authority, which is the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).
  • The regulatory authority is ordinarily obliged to accept the decision of the EAC.

What is the idea behind?

  • The basis in global environmental law for the EIA is the “precautionary principle”.
  • Environmental harm is often irreparable.
  • It is thus cheaper to avoid damage to the environment than to remedy it.
  • Various international environmental treaties and obligations as well as Supreme Court judgments are based on this principle.
  • Environmental regulation must balance damage to the environment with sustainable development and possible benefits of a project.
  • In this line, any project that involves environmental factors needs an unbiased assessment made on a precautionary basis.
  • It is with this idea that the Environmental Impact Assessment is carried out.
  • However, industries and business interests have long regarded EIA as a constraint to them.

What are the concerns with the recent notification?

  • The stated reason is to streamline the EIA process and bring it in line with recent judgments.
  • If put into force, the EIA Notification, 2020 will replace the EIA Notification, 2006 for all future projects.
  • But the Draft EIA Notification dilutes the effectiveness of the process, and shrinks its scope.
  • The most devastating blow to the EIA regime is the creation of an ex-post-facto clearance route.
  • Under this, the project proponent can enter an assessment procedure, with some minor fines for the violations.
  • In other words, it offers a route when an EIA clearance is not sought or granted, and the construction of the project had taken place.
  • Where such ex-post-facto clearances were being granted previously, the courts cracked down on them as illegal.
  • Therefore, what could not be ratified will now find itself notified.
  • The legality of sidestepping the courts is questionable and will have to be tested.
  • In essence, the EIA would become a business decision as to whether the law needs to be followed or the violation can be “managed”.
  • The argument that this route will be an “exception” is difficult, given the long history of expanding the exception into the rule.
  • The draft notification also shortens the time for the public to furnish responses on the project.
  • The project-affected people are frequently forest dwellers.
  • For these and others who do not have access to information and technology, this will make it harder to put forth representations.
  • Monitoring requirements have also been relaxed.
  • The draft EIA notification halves the frequency of reporting requirements from every 6 months to once a year.
  • It also extends the validity period for approvals in critical sectors such as mining.
  • The scope of the EIA regime is also set to shrink.
  • Industries that previously fell under the categories that required a full assessment have been downgraded.
  • The construction industry will be one such beneficiary, where only the largest projects will be scrutinised fully.
  • Defence and national security installations were always understandably exempt.
  • But, a vague new category of projects “involving other strategic considerations” will also now be free from public consultation requirements.

How serious is this?

  • A deadly gas leak at LG Polymers’ Visakhapatnam plant in May 2020 killed 12 people and harmed hundreds.
  • What came to light after the disaster was that the plant had been operating without a valid environmental clearance for decades.
  • Given such incidents, weakening the EIA process is essentially anti-democratic.
  • Seismic shifts in the local environment can threaten livelihoods, flood a valley or destroy a forest.
  • For affected communities, public consultation is a referendum on such existential threats.
  • To curtail this is to silence the voices that are scarcely heard otherwise.
  • It seems that the government views environmental regulation as an impediment to the ease of doing business.
  • During the nationwide coronavirus-led lockdown, the MoEF has been working swiftly to clear projects.
  • It is even carrying out public hearings over video conference.
  • Notably, the Minister for Environment and Forests and the Minister for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises is the same person now.
  • Two charges that are oppositional are vested with the same person and the resultant conflict of interest is debatable.

 

Source: Indian Express

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