EIA is a tool to assess the social, environmental, and economic impact of any project before its operation. It helps in reducing the adverse effect on the environment by any project which leads to environmental protection. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEF&CC) released Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020. It would replace EIA notification 2006 and has been out in the public domain in March 2020. The current draft has received heavy criticism from environmentalists and economists. People have also petitioned to take back EIA 2020 as it would cause more harm than doing good to the environment. The new notification defined some terms which were not defined in 2006 notification.
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, it became impossible to follow any official deadline. The deadline for public objections and suggestions was till 22nd May 2020. The proposal was to keep the deadline till 10th August 2020 for the general public to give their views/suggestions. Yet, the final date of public feedback submission is 30th June 2020.
Ex Post Facto Approval
There has always been opposition towards National Green Tribunal (NGT). However, the new EIA 2020 notification ignored the principle of environment clearance. It permitted post facto regulation of environmental violations. Therefore, the industries can get clearance for the project. Even if they have started working upon it without obtaining prior environmental clearances.
Environmental clearance is mandatory so that environmental, health and social concerns can be taken into account before starting any project. In the first place, it is a clear violation of the “precautionary principle” of environmental jurisprudence. On the contrary, it works on the principle of “pollute and pay”. Moreover, some areas are declared as ‘economically sensitive areas’ which would not be under mandatory environment clearance.
In addition to it, the number of projects have been increased which does not need the EIA process. In the name of ease of doing business, this draft would only damage the environment. The validity of the environmental clearances has also increased to 50 years from 30 years. Similarly, for the river valley project, it has increased to 10 years from 15 years. Any adverse consequences of any project could get unnoticed for a long period.
Stance of the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court gave a judgment which is concerning 3 industrial units in Gujarat. It stated that operating without environment clearances would be harmful to the environment. In April, the Supreme Court said that an “ecologically rational outlook” should be kept in mind for development. Also, environment compliance should not be seen as an obstacle but as a way of achieving sustainable development.
Vizag Gas Leak
On 7th May 2020, in Vishakhapatnam, a gas leak accident occurred which resulted in the death of many people. The LG Polymers India company was responsible for the gas leak. Later, it was found that it was running its petrochemical plant without appropriate environment clearance. Similarly, other projects can too violate environmental laws and then get approval. Moreover, it is not difficult for big companies/industries to violate the law and get away with it by paying penalties.
According to EIA notification 2006, there is a need for prior public consultations. It is needed before any project operation. There is a reduction of time for the public to submit their responses for any application of environmental clearance. It has been reduced from 30 days to 20 days. In 2006 notification, it was mandatory to complete the hearing process within 45 days, now it is 40 days.
The notification also proposes to enlarge the list of projects that do not need public consultation. It includes linear projects like pipelines, highways in border areas, building construction, etc. Public hearings would not be meaningful if an ample amount of time is not given to the people to express their views. Moreover, it would be worst for the people who could be affected by the project to not give their suggestions. Additionally, it would be a problem in areas where people are not well aware of the process. It would undermine the whole idea of transparency and credibility. By doing this government can refrain any project to go out for public scrutiny.
Under 2006 notification the project proponent was required to submit a report every 6 months. The report shows that work is carried out according to the terms due to which permission was granted. Now, in 2020 notification the time for submitting the report has been extended to 1 year from 6 months. Due to this extension, many social, health and environmental issues can get unnoticed.
The authority would not get an appropriate opportunity to question them for violation. Moreover, only fines or punishment could be imposed at that time. But, the harm done to the environment cannot be restored. It would give them the chance to choose the data and add it to the report. Also, they can hide the rest of the data.
Bypassing EIA Process
The 2020 draft notification gives the central government the power to categorize projects as “strategic”. Information on strategic projects does not go out in the public domain. There would be no detailed scrutiny or public consultation for the construction projects up to 1,50,000 square meters. In case of any violation, it can only be reported by a government authority or suo motu by the project proponent. This is also a clear violation of the principles of natural justice.
After all, it is a bold step towards decentralising environmental governance. It gives power to the central government to constitute district regulatory that regulates the EIA process. In 2006 notification, to constitute such bodies there was prior need of consultation with the state government. Though, now there is no such prior requirement.
The government should come with a draft that can balance both development and the environment. The primary goal of environmental protection is set aside and the focus is on ease of business. The present notification is a clever move towards investment irrespective of what it does to the environment.
Moreover, the government should not allow investment at the cost of the essence of the EIA process. The government gave 60 days to the people to respond. Though, considering the present situation lockdown period should be excluded. The reason is that everyone cannot respond to it efficiently.
Besides, the government should focus on spreading awareness about the public hearing process. Also, its importance in the EIA process. It a misconception that easing environmental regulations would contribute towards economic growth. In reality, India is at the 5th position in the Global Climate Risk Index and that is an alarming position to be at. India is vulnerable to these climate change. So, hindering environmental protection would harm the environment.
Recently, the advent of Cyclone Nisgara and Cyclone Amphan which caused destruction are the prime examples of climate change effects. Taking advantage of the pandemic the government is all set to clear their all projects. If this notification would be passed it would remove the environmental accountability of the industries/companies. In conclusion, I would like to say that economic revival is important. Yet, it should not come at the cost of compromising the environment.
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