India’s new Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) draft 2020 – a critical assessment

With the entire country battling the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic for more than 3 months now, the current year has been one of the most difficult ones for the nation. During this lockdown period, two separate incidents had caused major environmental damage. On May 7th, a polymer industrial plant in Vizag leaked toxic gas into the surrounding environment, killing 12 people, besides many hospitalized. The 2nd incident happened in Assam and hence received less coverage in national media. A gas well in Baghjan of Assam’s Tinsukia district suffered a blow out on May 27th. The fire kept burning for days and June 9th, the explosion was so severe that it was visible from as far as 30 kms. 2 firefighters died trying to contain the fire and hundreds of local residents were shifted to save them from danger. But an immeasurable damage was caused to the local environment. The Baghjan oil field is in close proximity to the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park – the oil spill in the local waterbodies led to severe damage to marine life and among the heartbreaking images was the burnt carcass of a critically endangered river dolphin.

In both the above incidents, the environmental clearance issued for the enterprises to operate comes under question. Especially more so in case of the Baghjan oil blowout given the rich biodiversity of Dibru-Saikhowa – home to 36 Mammalian species and close to 400 bird species. In this article, we explore the proposed amendments in the Environmental Impact Assessment that is currently under progress.

The Background: India was one of the signatories to the Stockholm Declaration (1972) on Environment and enacted statutes to regulate water pollution and air pollution in 1974 and ’81, respectively. However, it was the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984 which generated the need for an umbrella environment clearance mechanism leading to the EIA getting introduced in 1994. A further amendment happened in 2006. Every development project in India has to go through the EIA before it is allowed to start operating. Over time, there have been discontent regarding the EIA – the main objection being that it involves multiple levels of bureaucracy and red tapism that leads to slowdown of development projects. However, environmentalists have counter argued that to ensure balance between development and environment, a monitoring agency is critical and indispensable.

Current Development: On March 12, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF & CC) put the draft of the modified EIA in the public domain and requested views from different stakeholders on the same within 60 days. With the lockdown coming into effect at midnight of 25th March, various agencies voiced objection regarding the turnaround time and the ministry, taking cognizance of the same, extended it further to June 30th. Delhi High Court has since set August 11 as the last day for airing of views regarding the draft EIA. Modifications proposed in the draft EIA have come under criticism of environment experts. Some of the major concerns from experts are as below:

Lack of transparency in project details: The new draft fundamentally alters how projects related to coal mining, real estate and power generation get cleared. It gives the government a blanket authority to “Tag and clear” any project as one of “national importance”. No details of such projects will be available in public domain – this lack of transparency could see projects getting cleared without the necessary pre-diligence, experts fear.

Treatment of violations / “post-facto” clearance: In March, 2017, a new notification was issued with respect to treatment of violators with respect to EIA. This has new been formally proposed in the new EIA. As per this new proposal, any agency found to be in violation of environmental norms can continue the work subject to payment of a sizeable penalty – they need to provide two plans for remedy and compensate the estimated damage to the ecology in the range of 1.5-2 times. In other words, a kind of “post facto” clearance. However, as anyone can well appreciate, compensating for damage to a fragile eco-system is well nigh impossible. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has consistently opposed the “post facto” process.

EIA is hardly full proof: While the EIA has been in place since 1994, in reality it has often failed to serve the desired purpose. The reports on potential environmental damage are frequently shoddy and lacking in details. Moreover, consulting agencies that prepare these reports for a fee are easily influenced. A classic example was the construction of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) Village in Delhi for the 2010 CWG. Prior to the construction, several experts had warned that the location was on the Yamuna Plains. But NEERI, a top government agency carried out a survey and adjudged that the construction spot was not on the riverine plains. In the first monsoon after the construction was over, the complex was flooded showing the lacunae in the assessment process. Experts fear that with the dilution of checks in the new draft, such instances are likely to increase.

Too much discretionary power: The new draft increases the discretionary powers invested on the government manifold, argue environment experts. For e.g. it is proposed that hydro-electric projects below 25 MW will be exempt from EIA. However, this decision also opens up the possibility of a large hydel project in an ecologically sensitive zone like the Himalayas could be presented as a multitude of <25 MW ones on paper to get the exemption from EIA. Similarly, it is also proposed that linear projects like roadways and pipelines within 100 KMs aerial distance from international border/line of control/line of actual control will not require any form of public hearing. This new measure would put the North-East, an incredibly rich treasure trove of bio diversity at risk of significant environmental damage with little or no public scrutiny. Also, widening of national highways and projects of inland waterways are also proposed to be made free of EIA clearance. Given that significant stretches of national highways pass through forested areas, this is also a potentially dangerous decision.

Relaxation of norms: Of particular concern to experts are proposed dilution of norms. Some of these include (a) Validity of environment clearance for mining projects proposed to be extended from 30 years to 50 years (b) Similar extension of river valley projects from 10 years to 15 years (c) Time limit for members of the public to submit their views on hearing of application seeking environmental clearance to be reduced from 30 days to 25 days (d) The last amendment of the EIA in 2006 required the promoting agency to submit a report detailing progress and impact assessments to surrounding environment once every 6 months. The new draft proposes to increase the frequency to once a year. All the changes potentially can lead to significantly greater risk to the environment with lesser scope of scrutiny.

It is no doubt that development is a critical part of ensuring betterment in the lives of greater number of people. However, such betterment needs to also be done with caution and respect to the environment. World over, we are witnessing the adverse consequences of damage mankind is causing nature with rise in natural calamities like forest fires, cyclones, floods and so on. India already ranked a low 177 out of 180 counties in the Environment Performance Index (EPI) of 2018. Sacrificing naturals conservation at the altars of development would only lead to accelerated harm to the ecology. The way forward should be to ensure that bureaucratic obstacles in the EIA process are minimized ensuring faster clearance for critical projects but at the same time, keeping strong checks on potential ecological damage. Else, disasters like the one recently at Baghjan would keep recurring time and time again.

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