Since the dawn of human civilizations, our race has constantly been in a flow of development. Out of the 20 most populated cities in the world, 8 of them are in India. Thus, with the constant rise in population, civil construction has led to raising environmental concerns. For this, a system has been put together to assess the potential harms to the environment. EIA is a process of assessing the probable environmental impacts of a proposed project or development, taking into account inter-related socio economic, cultural and human health impacts, both beneficial and adverse. It makes a scientific estimate of the likely impacts of a project, such as the construction of mines, irrigation systems, dams, industrial units or waste treatment plants. EIA covers the Adivasi networks and town networks that are legitimately getting pay from these grounds and water bodies. It assesses the animals and their biological systems that would get obliterated and would evaluate the loss of huge number of trees that support diverse living creatures. It is a process in which people’s views are taken into consideration for granting final approval to any developmental project or activity and serves as a decision-making tool to decide whether the project should be approved or not.
Many activists have called the new EIA “anti-environment” and “pro-industries”. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s statements have accumulated numerous concerns surrounding the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 notification. “The EIA 2020 draft is a disaster”. It seeks to silence the voice of communities who will be directly impacted by the environmental degradation it unleashes. Not only does it have the potential to reverse many of the hard-fought gains that have been won over the years in the battle to protect our environment, it could potentially unleash widespread environmental destruction and mayhem across India,” said Gandhi.
The draft notification is given under the forces vested in the central government under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to take all such measures for securing and improving the nature of the environment.
As per the administration, the new notification is being brought in order to make the process more straightforward and convenient by the implementation of an online system, further delegation, rationalization and standardization of the process. However, environmentalists have said that the draft will further dilute the EIA process.
History of EIA in India
In India, the EIA process was formulated by the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act, 1970. A signatory to the Stockholm Declaration (1972) on Environment, India enacted laws to control water (1974) and air (1981). But it was only after the Bhopal gas leak disaster in 1984 that the country legislated an umbrella Act for environmental protection in 1986.
Under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, India notified its first EIA norms in 1994, setting in place a legal framework for regulating activities that access, utilize, and affect (pollute) natural resources. Every development project has been required to go through the EIA process for obtaining prior environmental clearance ever since. The 1994 EIA notification was replaced with a modified draft in 2006. Earlier this year, the government redrafted it again to incorporate the amendments and relevant court orders issued since 2006, and to make the EIA “process more transparent and expedient.”
The concept of EIA has its roots in the US. Embracing the neoliberal policies in the 1970s, the US passed environmental laws to include scientific assessment and public participation while taking important environmental decisions.
Most of the nations in the world have implemented EIA. On one side, it acts as a key to control the activities of private entities. On the other hand, it is a prerequisite for grants or loans by international financial institutions.
All inland waterways projects and expansion/widening of national highways — two focus areas of the government and championed by Nitin Gadkari, the minister in charge of the sectors concerned — will be exempt from prior clearance. These include roads that cut through forests and dredging of major rivers.
The 2020 draft also exempts most building construction projects of built-up area up to 1,50,000 sq m. This is a reiteration of the Environment Ministry’s December 2016 notification that was set aside by the National Green Tribunal in December 2017. The government subsequently moved the Supreme Court but did not get any relief.
The draft has been legally challenged by multiple petitions in various courts:
Petition Filed in Delhi High Court: Delhi-based activist Vikrant Tongad filed a petition in the Delhi High Court on June 30 seeking an extension of time for public consultation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and publication of the draft. Petition to release the draft in other languages has also been filed but didn’t receive any response.
Petitions Filed in Karnataka High Court: United Conservation Movement filed a petition in the Karnataka High Court seeking extension of time to file objections on the Draft EIA 2020 notification till December 31, 2020. On August 5, the Karnataka High Court directed the Union government not to publish the final notification of the draft EIA till September 7, observing that the draft was not publicized in vernacular languages. The HC then extended the interim order and the stay on the publication of the final notification based on the Draft EIA 2020 until further notice as the Centre did not file any response. This gives some relief in terms of time for environmental action groups to advocate against the draft.
Petition Filed in Madras High Court: A petition was filed in the Madras High court by Meenava Thanthai, an organization working for the cause of the fishermen community, to direct the government to translate the Draft EIA 2020 into regional languages, and provide sufficient time to submit objections.
Review of Public Comments by Ministry of Environment – Response from the Indian Government
The Ministry had appointed the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), a subsidiary of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) created and funded by the government, to compile and streamline the suggestions/comments received from the public. Even after the effort, public decision is still lacking along with the ‘save the environment goal’ of the concept of EIA. Despite the numerous petitions and hearings in court, the bigger issue at hand has not been highlighted.
The aim of the ministry has abruptly moved from environment protection to expedient clearance of environmental obliteration. This example of ‘simplicity of doing business’ is a thoughtless and disrupting act towards the climate. EIA 2020 suggests that if a venture has come up without environmental clearance, it can in any case proceed with its operations. The environmental clearance can be acquired later by paying a little fine as long as the undertaking is passable on the site. In the meantime, the impact of the project on the environment and lives endangered is taken with a grain of salt. Also, there is no scope for public complaint. The response period for the public to any notification of a project in EIA 2006 was 30 days but EIA 2020 draft reduced the public response time to 20 days which has been convenient and in favor of the government as the govt didn’t respond to the petitions that asked for the draft to be translated in all 22 scheduled languages. Thereby silencing the public.