The controversial Environment Impact Assessment draft of 2020, which dilutes the law and does away with public consultations for a wide range of projects, will only accept comments till Tuesday. The process allows people to send in their objections to the changes before the final changes are notified.
Any objections made to the controversial draft of the Environment Impact Assessment draft, 2020, the notification for which was issued by the Union Ministry of Forests, Environment and Climate Change, can only be done till Tuesday.
The proposed new notification has been advocated as a fast track clearance mechanism by the government to allow industrial and infrastructural projects to be set up at the cost of forest areas.
One of the most controversial aspects of this new notification is to do away with the mandatory process of public consultation for a wide range of projects.
A major proposed change is that the current draft increases the maximum limit for coke ovens to 8 lakh tonnes per annum, as compared to the previous 2.5 lakh tonnes per annum. These plants can also now be permitted within 5 km of Protected Areas (PAs) and Ecozones.
Another proposed dilution will allow mines of less than 5 hectares of area to start operations without current compliance process.
Further, more than 25 red and orange industries will be moved from Category A (which needs expert appraisal) to Category B1 or B2, which requires lesser EIA processes. These industries, including chemical processing and acid manufacturing, will be brought under Category B2, which doesn't need public consultation.
Further, in certain cases, it would allow industries to begin operations and later to get environmental compliance from the authorities.
Since its publication on March 23, environmental activists and grassroot organisations have slammed the draft, and have written to the ministry to oppose the move.
Bengaluru-based United Conservation Movement (UCM), an umbrella organisation of many other activist groups working primarily to conserve the Western Ghats has called the proposed changes disastrous.
They also cited recent industrial disasters that have taken place in the post-pandemic era, including the gas leak at LG Polymer in Andhra Pradesh, where at least 12 persons were killed and many others were injured and Assam's Bagjhan gas fire, which had broken out on May 27. In Tinsukia district of Assam, the fire continued to rage on for close to two weeks. Many people living in nearby villages were displaced and forced to leave their homes during the pandemic.
“The EIA norms should be strengthened and not diluted. Otherwise it will create more health hazards and issues,” Joseph Hoover, convenor of the organisation, told TNM.
UCM pointed out that India’s ranking on the world’s Environmental Performance Index dropped to 177 out of 180 countries in 2018 which was worse by 36 places when compared to 2016. And they said by allowing these proposed changes, it would make India the worst in these rankings.
In its feedback, members have individually and collectively pointed out how the EIA notifications were issued under the Environment Protection Act, which itself was a response to the 1984 Bhopal disaster. The large scale disaster had cost thousands of human lives, and also damaged the environment.
UCM also highlighted in detail 22 dilution points that have been proposed.
“Most projects requiring environment clearance come up in village communities where the capacity to understand such complicated technical jargon – mostly in English – is limited. The EIA 2020 draft has been published only in English and Hindi without any regional language translation which makes a large population of this nation completely unaware of the implications of EIA 2020 on their lives and livelihoods,” UCM added.
Even college students across India including Bengaluru petitioned Prakash Javadekar, the Union Minister, to withdraw these controversial changes.
Minister overruled senior staff to cut feedback window
Recently, it has also come to light how Javedkar also ignored his own department’s senior bureaucrats who said that the feedback should be extended till August 10. This window was curtailed by 40 days, and June 30 was declared as the final day.
The Quint has reported that Javedkar had opposed the ministry staff who proposed that the feedback window for the draft be till August 10 based on a RTI reply, but was curtailed and kept at June 20. The RTI request was filed by one environmental activist Vikrant Tongad.
While the change was officially proposed first on March 23 on the government website, the last date for filing objections was May 22. This was later extended based on various representations from multiple individuals and organizations, including former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.
The activist who filed the RTI has also approached the Delhi High Court to seek clarity over the disagreement between the minister and officials within the government over the matter.
A bench led by Chief Justice DN Patel has asked the union government’s stand to clarify on the issue on Monday
Lessons from the pandemic
The other common opinion that has been voiced is the desperation of the government to steamroll this modification in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly when a large part of the scientific community thinks that lack of biodiversity is one of the root causes of this pandemic.
Commenting on the issue, Sandeep Anirudhan, a Bengaluru-based activist, said, “Our rivers, lakes, forests, all of them will be wrecked. Our air and water sources will be polluted further, our forests will be stressed further leading to more zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. We will have no place left to live. The real need is to strengthen environmental protection. Not just that, the government needs to have a plan for reversing environmental damage, and here we have a government that is hell bent on worsening the damage.”
He added that industries will set up in neighbourhoods, and people have no way of opposing it.
“Public Consultation, which is an essential part of our democratic process is being removed, thus weakening our democracy itself,” he added.
Campaigning platform Jhatkaa.org in partnership with Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG) created a template email which people can use to send in their comments about the draft. The same can be accessed here.