7 PM Editorial |Draft EIA Notification is an attempt to weaken regulation, silence affected communities.| 28th June 2020

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Draft EIA Notification is an attempt to weaken regulation, silence affected communities

Introduction

The government has put up for public consideration and comment the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020, which if put into force will replace the EIA Notification of 2006 for all future projects.

The government’s actions on environmental regulation show that it considers it as an impediment to the ease of doing business. During the nationwide coronavirus lockdown, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has been working swiftly to clear projects, even carrying out public hearings over video conference.

What is Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)?

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is one of the tools available with the planners to achieve the goal of harmonizing development activities with the environmental concerns. EIA has been made mandatory under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

The EIA process scrutinises the potential environmental impact and negative externalities of a proposed project before ground is broken and determines whether it can be carried out in the form proposed, or whether it is to be abandoned or modified.

The assessment is carried out by an Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), which consists of scientists and project management experts. The EAC frames the scope of the EIA study and a preliminary report is prepared.

General steps involved in Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) procedure
  1. Screening: it is done to see whether a project requires environmental clearances as per the statutory notifications.
  2. Scoping: It considers the areas of impacts that needs to be studied. Example: Impact on tribal, forest, rivers, soil, biodiversity, etc.
  3. Baseline Data: it describes the existing environmental status of the identified study area.
  4. Impact Prediction: Analysing the possible effects on the physical, biological, social and economic conditions and suggesting alternatives.
  5. Public Hearing: That report is published, and a public consultation process takes place, where objections can be heard including from project-affected people.
  6. Environment Management Plan: It includes delineation of mitigation measures, including prevention and control for each environmental component and rehabilitation and resettlement plan.
  7. Decision Making: 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. The regulatory authority is ordinarily obliged to accept the decision of the EAC.
  8. Monitoring: To monitor the compliance with the report throughout the project. To ensure corrective actions, wherever the impact exceeds the predicted levels.
Salient Features of 2006 Amendment in the EIA
  • EIA Notification, 2006 has decentralised the environmental clearance projects by categorizing the developmental projects in two categories i.e. Category A and category B.
  • Category A projects are appraised at the national level by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) and category B projects are appraised at State Level.
  • After 2006 Amendment, EIA cycle comprises of four stages:
    • Screening
    • Scoping
    • Public Hearing
    • Appraisal
  • Category A projects require mandatory environmental clearance and thus screening process is not undertaken.
  • Category B projects undergoes screening process and they are classified in two categories:
    • Category B1 Projects: Mandatory requires EIA
    • Category B2 Projects: Do not require EIA.
What is Precautionary Principle?

Precautionary principle is the basis for global environmental law for the EIA. The precautionary principle enables decision-makers to adopt precautionary measures when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain and the stakes are high.

Since environmental regulation must balance damage to the environment with sustainable development and possible benefits of the project, an unbiased assessment must be made on a precautionary basis, before investment, jobs and infrastructure are put on the line.

The government is also legally bound to the precautionary principle under international treaties and obligations, as well as by Supreme Court judgments.

Issues with the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020
  • Ex-post-facto clearance route: This route enables a project proponent to enter an assessment procedure for those projects, whose EIA clearance was never sought or granted, and the construction took place regardless. The penalty includes some minor fines for the violations.
    • It should be noted that previously Courts have declared such ex-post facto clearances illegal. The legality of sidestepping the courts is questionable and will have to be tested.
    • It will become a business decision as to whether follow the law or to break it and manage it later.
  • Curtailing response period: The draft notification shortens the time period for the public to give their suggestions on the project.
    • In most cases project-affected people have been the traditional forest dwellers and absence of information and communication technology in these areas will further create obstacles in public participation.
  • Dilution of Monitoring Stage: The frequency period of reporting about the compliance in the monitoring stage has been increased to one year from six months.
    • Climate change and increased deforestation in ecological sensitive areas demands that rules and regulations must be strictly followed. Allowing lax in compliance will not make the project sustainable.
  • Relaxation of norms for critical sectors: The draft notification extends the validity period for approvals in critical sectors such as mining.
  • Downgrading the assessment of industries: Industries that previously fell under the categories that required a full assessment have been downgraded. The construction industry will be one such beneficiary, where only the largest projects will be scrutinised fully.
  • Dilution of public consultation: Projects related to defence and national security were already under exemption list but the new notification creates a new category of projects “involving other strategic considerations”.
    • These category of projects would be free from public consultation requirements. The newly created category is vague and can be manipulated. Would a power plant fall into that category?
Case Studies related to violations of EIA
  • Oil India Limited’s oil wells in the Tinsukia district, Assam, only a few kilometres away from protected forests, went up in flames this month. Recent processes for expansion and modification apparently took place without fresh environmental clearance.
  • A deadly gas leak at LG Polymers’ Visakhapatnam plant in May killed 12 people and harmed hundreds. What came to light after the disaster was that the plant had been operating without a valid environmental clearance for decades.
Measures to strengthen Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)
  • Independent agency: The entire EIA process from screening to monitoring should be done by independent agencies and creation of a National EIA Accreditation Body for agencies carrying out EIA.
  • Strict adherence to Precautionary Principle: The list of the concerns raised by the public should be studied in detail to arrive at any conclusion.
  • Strategic Environment Assessment: It should be included in EIA as it helps in choosing a project, and not just evaluate it. It offers alternatives and guides project financing. The directives of the SEA re reflected in the National Environment Policy, 2006.
  • Robust and inclusive public hearing: The Panchayats and urban local bodies should be a part of EIA as to incorporate the traditional knowledge of locals. The report must also be published in local vernacular languages.
Conclusion

EIA process aims to create a bridge between the development and the people that are being affected by the development process. Thus, weakening EIA process goes against the principles of democracy.

Land alienation is the biggest cause of distress amongst the traditional forest dwellers. Their representation and engagement in the public consultation stage acts like a referendum on existential threats.

Therefore, government in order to achieve sustainable development and a balance between economy and environment should undergo progressive refinements by steadily removing the constraints.

Question:

What do you understand by Precautionary principle? Critically analyse the recent modifications made in the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020? (15 Marks)

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