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In Deep Waters: A Review of the Draft EIA Notification 2020

Illustration by Kelsey King
Written by Vidhi Arora

The long-standing rivalry between the economic and the environmental interest of a nation is alleged to have plagued the world of governance and its purveyors since decades. Yet, popular discourse and a majority of policies and legal regulations have covertly declared economic interests the true winner ages ago and the Draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020 is your quintessential victory.

The Draft EIA Notification is yet to be implemented and so far this notification has received wide-spread criticisms. The government has been bombarded with letters, petitions and phone calls by activists, students and environmentalists alike, all of them begging the government to not pass the notification. On 2 September 2020, the Hindustan Times reported that the Union Environment ministry has received more than 1.7 million letters and emails with suggestions, comments and oppositions against the draft notification. While the government has promised to take the oppositions into consideration, the Union government’s precedent of prioritising corporate interests suggest a very small likelihood the objections being taken seriously.

India’s relationship with the EIA Act dates back to 1977. The act has been in existence for more than two decades and seen more than 12 amendments. The purpose of introducing EIA in India in 1977, was to ensure that economic projects could be assessed for their environmental viability before being implemented. Under an amendment in the EIA in 2006, the act made it mandatory for organisations/factories in different fields such as mining, thermal power plants, river valley, infrastructure (road, highway, ports, harbours and airports) and industries including very small electroplating or foundry units to file and receive clearance from the state governments under the EIA before they could proceed with their work.

While the EIA norms established in 1994 were not perfect and often led to delay for industrialists and allowed rich industrialists to sometimes get clearances through bribes and filing deficit paperwork without penalty, it was reasonably successful in ensuring that India’s environmental and ecological interests would be safe. Although the act had a narrow perspective of environmental degradation, the clearances demanded a high level of detailed analysis of the projects. However, the Draft notification threatens to invalide the key features of the EIA that ensured environment protection.

The earlier EIA norms allowed public hearings for clearances. The public hearing mandated that information regarding the projects be put in the public domain and be made accessible for objections/suggestions/comments. Only defence and national security projects were exempt from public hearings. This aspect of the EIA norms made it possible for environmental activists and experts to comment on the environmental feasibility of a project and offer insights to reduce the harms to the environment. However, the Draft notification 2020 gives the government the authority to extend the exemption offered to defence and security projects to other projects as per government’s discretion.

This exemption from public hearing significantly reduces the oppositions/criticism that the new projects would face from environmentalists and a substantially greater amount of power would lie in the hands of the people who do not have sufficient and/or relevant knowledge necessary to take decisions for environment protection. Given the authority’s penchant for crony capitalism, this exemption may prove extremely deleterious to the nation’s environmental interests.

The Draft EIA notification also reduces the time for public hearings, in essence, for tribal people or individuals who do not have access to enough resources and time to prove the detrimental effects of a project, the window for objection is even shorter. This may allow many organisations to receive clearances without a proper hearing owing to limited time allotment.

Furthermore, under the Draft Notification inland water projects, and highway expansion projects would be exempted from seeking environmental clearance. This is especially harmful because highway expansion projects are majorly responsible for causing wide-spread deforestation, while inland water projects contribute significantly to water pollution and degradation.

Another harmful aspect of the Draft Notification is that it transfers the power accorded to state and local governments to take decisions regarding environmental clearances over to the Union government. Not only does it reverse the benefits that the country enjoyed due to decentralisation of powers, it also does not take into consideration that the state has greater incentive to protect its immediate environment (due to closer proximity and consequently greater effects of environmental degradation) than the Union government.

Local governments are far more accessible to the masses than the Union government if they wish to voice their concerns, therefore the new amendment makes it difficult for the local population of the state, who are mostly likely to be affected if the project goes wrong, to participate in the decision making process of granting environmental clearances.The Union government can prioritise their interests over that of the states, and easily overrule the state and local governments with the help of the Draft notification 2020.

Lastly, the draft EIA notification has provisions for “ex-post-facto clearance”. Under this provisions, organisations who previously worked and completed projects in violation of the environmental regulations can now apply for environmental clearances and be granted the clearance if they pay a fine. However, these violations can only be reported by the developers or the government authorities and not the public. This poses a problem because this provision allows the violators to get away after major damage to the environment by paying a measly fine and are not punished for their crimes against the environment. Additionally, since the public cannot file a complaint under the “ex-post facto clearance” provision, the developers shall have no incentive to seek clearance and pay penalty if it believes that it can get away with the project without the necessary clearances.

It is not easy to sit back and observe while the people you entrusted with your safety, your environment and your health do their best to destroy them. This draft EIA notification 2020 is an ineffective amendment at best and a harmful precedent at worst. The Union government seems to have forgotten that the cost of environmental degradation is one that the nation cannot afford. Reversing Environmental degradation is costly and the process is time-consuming and we have neither the time, nor the money.

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