The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued the EIA draft notification on 23rd March. EIA is an important process for evaluating the likely environmental impact of a proposed project. The Ministry sought for public consultation once the draft notification was published.
India was a signatory of the Stockholm Declaration on Environment (1972). India then enacted laws to control water (1974) and air (1981) pollution. The Bhopal gas leak tragedy (1984) was a clear indicator that these laws were ineffective. Then the Indian government enacted the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. India notified its first EIA norms in 1994. It was later replaced by a modified notification in 2006.
What is EIA and what do the norms do?
EIA is an important process for evaluating the likely environmental impact of a proposed project. It is a process whereby people’s views are taken into consideration for granting final approval to any developmental project or activity. It is basically, a decision-making tool to decide whether the project should be approved or not.
These EIA norms set in place a legal framework for regulating activities that access, utilize and pollute natural resources.
They perform the function of assessing and regulating the impact of new projects on the environment.
Every development project has to compulsorily go through the EIA process for obtaining prior environmental clearance.
How is the assessment done?
The assessment is carried out by an Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), which consists of scientists and project management experts. The EIA process involves screening, scoping, assessment and evaluation of impacts and developments of alternatives, preparation of EIA report, decision making and monitoring, compliance, enforcement and environmental auditing.
Once the report is prepared, it is published, and a public consultation process takes place, where objections can be heard including from project-affected people. The EAC can then make a final appraisal of the project and forward that to the regulatory authority, which is the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).
EIA Draft 2020
Considering all the events happening due to climate change like extreme weather conditions, cyclones, floods, landslides, droughts and now locust attacks, the public expected more stricter and stringent provisions to protect the environment in the new EIA draft. But this draft is proving to be quite the opposite.
The problematic provisions and exemptions of this draft:
The 2020 draft offers no remedy for the political and bureaucratic stronghold on the EIA process, and thereby on industries. Instead, it proposes to bolster the government’s discretionary power while limiting public engagement in safeguarding the environment.
The new draft exempts a long list of projects from public consultation like the inland waterways projects and national highway projects that cut through forests and major rivers.
The two most significant changes in the new draft are the provisions for post-facto project clearance and abandoning the public trust doctrine. Projects operating in violation of the Environment Act will now be able to apply for clearance.
While projects concerning national defence and security are naturally considered strategic, the government gets to decide on the “strategic” tag for other projects. The 2020 draft says no information on “such projects shall be placed in the public domain”. This opens a window for summary clearance for any project deemed strategic without having to explain why.
If any violations are taking place, they have to be reported either by a government authority or the developers themselves. There is no scope for any public complaint about violations.
Environment Impact Analysis is done on the basis of ‘Precautionary Principle’. The damages caused by development projects in the name of streamlining to the environment are irreparable. Once a forest gets destroyed, a river gets polluted or if there’s an oil spill in a water body, the harm cannot be undone. Hence, protecting the environment should be of utmost priority. But many environmentalists and websites which are based on environmental advocacy were blocked. After many protests and public initiative, the Delhi High Court extended the time given to the public for giving their opinions till 11th August, 2020.
Protecting and conserving our environment and ecosystem is a process which requires constant and conscious effort from every individual.
Sources: The Hindu, The Indian Express and Indiatimes.