As our forests are robbed of their green cover, as our blue skies are plundered by pollutants for profit, as our oceans heat up and our rivers are reclaimed for rapid urbanization, we stand in good stead for economic expansion while inching towards extreme weather conditions.
Our democracy unfortunately dons a heavy cloak of unfettered decision making with the concentration of power in the hands of a select few, giving rise to conflict of interest, crony capitalism and ironically the growing militarization of the vocabulary around climate change. It’s interesting to note that a single union minister holds three key portfolios in India, namely, The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change; Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises and The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
The Contentious EIA Notification 2020
The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a universal tool used to assess the environmental viability of industrial projects/ their expansion and to put in measures to mitigate their damaging effects.
The EIA is both a planning tool and a decision-making tool. As a planning tool, EIA presents methods and techniques to identify, predict, and evaluate potential environmental impacts of projects periodically. As a decision-making tool, it provides information that promotes policy-making and actions that ensure sustainability in implemented projects.
EIA 2020’s draft notification has created an uproar amongst activists, environmentalists, indegenious people and the public as it dilutes fundamental provisions in direct contravention to conventions, international frameworks, Supreme Court precedents and Sustainable Development Goals.
Take for instance the fact that 40 projects under the new notification are completely exempt from obtaining clearances as compared to the 2006 EIA which required every project to seek clearances.
Clause 5(7) of the notification is excessive in the least, as it empowers the Union Government to grant permission to any project under the guise of “strategic considerations for India” and unequivocally states that no information relating to such projects shall be placed in the public domain. The wipe out dissent, the notifications doesn’t define “strategic considerations.”
Earlier, every industrial project that required an increase in production capacity was mandated to seek public consultation; now, projects that require only 50% or more of an increase in production capacity or modernisation require public consultations. Public consultations have always been a great check and balance in the system and diluting this provision only increases the concentration of power.
Furthermore, these public consultations are merely an exercise in smoke and mirrors, as public hearings have now become paperwork and there are no measures in place to ascertain whether a project has been redesigned or reworked. In most cases, while people are heard their recommendations are not implemented.
The Delhi High Court has highlighted the importance of public hearings in a judgment pronounced stating, “A public hearing is a form of participatory justice giving a voice to the voiceless and a place and occasion to them to express their views with regard to a project. Such a public hearing gives an opportunity to the people to raise issues pertaining to the social impact and the health impact of a proposed project.”
Under the 2006 EIA, projects that were undertaken had to submit a compliance report every six months which has now been changed to an annual filing.
The hiring of EIA consultants by the industry itself and not independently, poses huge question marks on the credibility and impartiality of these reports and their proposed recommendations.
As per a report by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, for the period between July 2015 and August 2020, the Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC) cleared 78.4% of the proposals submitted out of 3,100 proposals and returned 393 proposals due to shortcomings. A mere 2.9% (91 proposals) were not recommended for clearance, however it’s a known fact that these proposals make a comeback under different names.
With no accountability measures in place, EAC’s can act with impunity by approving proposals and placing dummy conditions on these proposals, even though they have adverse consequences for the environment. However, the EAC is not held accountable for ensuring that conditions are adhered to by corporations.
Assam’s Bhajan Oil Spill which occurred in May 2020, has still not been adequately contained and has caused injuries and casualties as has the Vizag Gas Leak which is reminiscent of the Bhopal Gas tragedy. Both these disasters, occuring only days apart from each other can be attributed to an opaque and weak EIA system where flaws were flourishing for profit.
The Way Forward
A flawed system can only give rise to flawed outcomes and the notification is in need of an entire overhaul. A good starting point for the ministry is to reintroduce public consultations for every project and define what falls under the scope of strategic considerations for projects. A webinar on the EIA recently hosted by ConnectFor in collaboration with the Centre for Science and Environment reiterated the fact that the government would have to take these aforementioned points and recommendations into consideration to create a more robust and solid EIA to conserve the environment and indegenious people.
- Blog by Krutika Shah, NGO Team
Views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of ConnectFor.