Let’s face it.
When it comes to environmental damage, individual efforts for an eco-conscious lifestyle does next to nothing, except perhaps alleviating our own guilt. Without policy level and large-scale changes in how businesses and economies operate, the fight to stem climate change has no teeth.
And that is why it irks me to no end when policy safeguards that are already in place are diluted to make way for ‘ease of doing business’. With the EIA notification draft 2020, the Indian government is all set to effectively set aside one such environmental safeguard that is already in place.
Good news is, we can still do something about it. The draft document is open for public comments till 11th August 2020. Responses can be sent to the ministry’s official email ID for the EIA consultation process: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below is a discussion on why this draft is crucial and demand our attention. I have already submitted my response to the ministry and have reproduced that in full here so you can have a better understanding of the issues. This response can be used as a template for your own responses.
However, I’d encourage you to read the draft, read the commentaries around it (I will enclose all the resources I found online at the end of this post), and make editorial changes and add your own points before submitting them.
The reason for this is to ensure that responses don’t end up in the spam folder or can be rejected en masse through a simple search function. Use this template but make it unique by adding own language, points, and observations. This will take little time as this template is already elaborate, but it will ensure that the ministry is forced to read through all of them as separate responses. This helps amplify the issue and make every response count.
What is EIA?
The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process has been one of the most crucial executive safeguards against corrosive exploitation of India’s environment. It is the process of assessing whether a proposed project/business will be sustainable or not. This assessment is done through ground-level studies, public hearings, and legal procedures that help ensure adequate rehabilitation and compensation structures for the communities being affected by the project in question.
This is a tool to stop environment degradation at its source which is several times more effective in stemming environmental harm than trying to restore already damaged areas.
The first EIA notification detailing its scope and functions was issued in 1994 under the country’s Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. It followed the declaration made in the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 that pledged to base environmental conservation practices on a “precautionary principle”. This is a preventive approach as opposed to a curative one and aims to stop environmental damage from happening in the first place. It calls for prioritizing sustainability as non-negotiable criteria for establishing new projects/businesses.
Why is the new draft of EIA controversial?
The union government has introduced a new draft of this document earlier this year, incorporating several changes that are potentially harmful to the environment and antithetical to the principles of ecological conservation. It was opened for public comments through a small announcement on the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change website and the initial date for closing the comments were set to be 30th June.
This was done amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and a country-wide lockdown, with very little effort to notify the public at large. Some outcry from environmental organizations and a PIL later, the end date for submitting public comments has been extended to 11th August 2020.
This draft essentially treats the environment clearance process as red tape and needless paperwork. It seeks to promote ‘ease of doing business’ at the cost of environmental damage those businesses may incur. It also seeks to provide ‘loopholes’ to industries with which it can bypass or manipulate legal necessities surrounding environmental checks.
This draft goes directly against the interests of Indian citizens, the majority of whom are already facing the brunt of decades of irresponsible and unsustainable development. Unpredictable weather patterns, unusual seasonal events, growing intensity and devastation of natural disasters, and growth in accidents related to hazardous industries operating without environmental clearances are part of our everyday news. If this draft becomes official, it would remove what little executive check India still has on keeping businesses sustainable.
I have elaborated the issues with this draft in my response to the ministry which is enclosed below, so not going into it here. You can find the draft document at the end of this post along with some resources that analyze the issues with it.
To whom it may concern,
The draft EIA fails to uphold the ‘precautionary principle’ enshrined in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit Declaration and would dilute whatever little environmental regulations India has in place right now. It reads like a document that is more concerned with “ease of business” than with the concern this ministry is supposed to be dealing with – namely, climate change.
Here are the things I found concerning in particular:
Post-facto approval – The draft paves the way for unethical business practices to flourish by providing a provision for assessing projects that are running without prior environmental clearance. If this post-facto assessment is positive the project faces no penalty for not seeking prior environmental clearance which is unlawful. Even if it is negative no strict penalty has been specified other than a “recommendation” for closing the project, and nothing has been said about repairing the environmental damage that the offending project would have already caused.
Requesting of assessment by the project proponent in case of violation – the ministry seems to place way too much faith on industrialists by making them the only party other than government figureheads or government-appointed regulatory bodies to be eligible to apply for environmental assessment of violations. The communities that are in direct line of environmental damages caused by such projects won’t have any voice in the matter if this draft passes, nor would environmental experts or the larger civil society.
Shorter window for public hearings – The time range between a public hearing notice and the date of the hearing is currently 30 days as per the 2006 notification. The draft proposes to cut it short by making it a 20 days-window. Given the lack of proper communication channels in the country, especially in remote areas, this is hugely undemocratic. It leaves community stakeholders with very little time to understand the issues and prepare arguments. If anything, the current window should have been expanded and more avenues to ensure proper information dissemination should have been introduced.
Leeway to building and construction projects – The current notification states new construction projects up to 20,000 sq km do not require detailed scrutiny, public hearings, or EIA studies. The draft hikes this window up several notches to 1,50,000 sq km This will leave a huge chunk of the construction sector out of the purview of EIA and yet it is one of the biggest environmental offenders in the country. This move defies all logic, from a climate perspective. However, this would surely constitute ease of business. It seems this draft is more concerned with the latter than the former.
Exemptions – The exclusion of SEZs and SFZs from the purview of EIA has been continued in this draft. This needs to be done away with. No matter how ‘special’ economic activities are they cannot be above environmental checks – this is a crucial process that affects the health of all citizens of India and should not be exempted under any circumstances. Also, this draft introduces a new and very vague category of ‘strategic’ projects for which no information will be available in the public domain, and hence won’t go through the EIA processes of public hearings and ground-level studies. National security and defence projects are already out of the scope of EIA so what is the need for this new category? ‘Strategic’ is a vague and opaque term that can constitute anything.
Notification amidst COVID-19 – This notification for comments was issued amidst one of the biggest health emergencies India has faced in recent history, that too only on the ministry website. Up till the final date of submission of comments, very few people know about this. With most of the country cut off due to lockdown and considering the huge number of people who has little or no access to the internet, it is not possible to have a democratic discussion on the merits of this draft. Yet this is an extremely important piece of safeguard which concerns every single citizen of this country and should have as much public scrutiny as possible for our collective good.
A lackadaisical approach to the environment has time and again proved disastrous for India. Drastically changing weather patterns, unusual seasonal incidents, growing severity of natural disasters, and more and more instances of accidents at factories without proper EIA check are part of everyday news now. This draft, sadly, seems to completely overlook this reality. Ease of business cannot come at the cost of sustainable development. The ministry responsible for Environmental safeguards cannot be looking to expedite business processes.
I, as a citizen of India, ask the relevant authority to withdraw this draft and provide an adequate window for thorough and meaningful public consultation. We are facing a climate emergency, ‘ease of business’ cannot be a priority now. If a more stringent environmental check leads to project delays, so be it. That is insignificant in the face of the threat this planet and this country is facing right now.
(Your name here)
List of online resources
Explained: Reading the draft Environment Impact Assessment norms | Indian Express
Undemocratic Evasion of Environmental Responsibility | Economic & Political Weekly (Paywall)
Draft EIA Notification 2020 : Areas Of Concern | Livelaw.in