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7 PM Editorial | ‘Undemocratic Evasion of Environmental Responsibility: On Draft EIA Notification 2020’| 8th May 2020

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Undemocratic Evasion of Environmental Responsibility: On Draft EIA Notification 2020

What had happened?

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) released the Draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2020 on 23rd March 2020.  It seeks to replace the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006. The ministry has recently extended the notice period for making any objections or suggestions on the proposal contained in the draft notification till 30th June 2020.

The draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2020 has many issues which evade the Indian government from its environmental responsibilities.

This brings us to the questions of issues pertaining to draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2020. In this article we will discuss the following:

  • What is Environmental impact assessment (EIA)?
  • What are the components of EIA?
  • What are the key features of Draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2020?
  • What are the issues pertaining to draft EIA Notification 2020?
  • Way forward
  • Conclusion
 What is Environmental impact assessment (EIA)?
  • Environmental impact assessment (EIA) was developed as a tool to minimize negative impact of human activities on the environment.
  • The purpose of the environmental impact assessment is to:
    • assess the impact of a proposed activity on the environment before making the decision on whether to carry it out, and
    • Develop and assess measures to avoid or minimize those impacts if it is decided to carry out the activity.
  • EIA can be defined as a process of collecting information about environmental impacts of a proposed project and consequent relevant decision-making.
  • UNEP defines Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as “a tool used to identify the environmental, social and economic impacts of a project prior to decision-making. It aims to predict environmental impacts at an early stage in project planning and design, find ways and means to reduce adverse impacts, shape projects to suit the local environment and present the predictions and options to decision-makers.”

What are the components of EIA?

The fundamental components of an EIA would necessarily involve the following stages:

  1. Screeningto determine which projects or developments require a full or partial impact assessment study.
  2. Scoping to identify the key issues and impacts that should be further investigated. This stage also defines the boundary and time limit of the study.
  3. Assessment and evaluation of impacts and development of alternatives, to predict and identify the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project or development, including the detailed elaboration of alternatives.
  4. Reporting the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or EIA report, including an environmental management plan (EMP), and a non-technical summary for the general audience.
  5. Review of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS),based on the terms of reference (scoping) and public (including authority) participation.
  6. Decision-makingon whether to approve the project or not, and under what conditions; and
  7. Monitoring, compliance, enforcement and environmental auditing.Monitor whether the predicted impacts and proposed mitigation measures occur as defined in the EMP. Verify the compliance of proponent with the EMP, to ensure that unpredicted impacts or failed mitigation measures are identified and addressed in a timely fashion.

After the discussion on the basics of Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), let us discuss the draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2020 and the issues pertaining to it.

What are the key features of Draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2020?

The draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2020 seeks to replace the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 and Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986. It proposes certain conditions and thresholds on undertaking new infrastructure projects and on expansion or modernization of existing infrastructure projects. These projects include dams, mines, airports, and highways.

Key features of the proposed notification include:

  • Categorization of projects and activities:
    • All infrastructure projects and activities will be divided into three categories based on their potential social and environmental impacts and the extent of such impact.
    • All projects will require prior environment clearance from the concerned regulatory authority before commencement of any construction, installation, establishment, or any such activity.
  • Exemption:The 2006 notification defines ‘public consultation’ as the process by which the concerns of local affected persons and other stakeholders are addressed and taken into account while designing the project.  The draft notification exempts certain projects from public consultation.  These include all building, construction and area development projects, inland waterways, expansion or widening of national highways, and modernisation of irrigation projects.
  • Violations:The draft notification provides four ways for cognizance of environmental violations.  These are:
    1. application of the project promoter,
    2. reporting by any government authority,
    3. found during the appraisal by Appraisal Committee, or
    4. any violation found during the processing of application by the regulatory authority.
What are the issues pertaining to draft EIA Notification 2020?
  • Post-Facto Approval:
    • The new draft allows for post-facto approval for projects, which means that it has provisions to award clearances for projects even if they have started construction or have been running without securing environmental clearances.
    • Post facto approval is in violation of the “precautionary principle,” which is a principle of environmental sustainability.
    • Even Supreme Court on 1st April 2020, ruled that the central government had no power to grant post facto approval, on the grounds that this would be in “derogation of the fundamental principles of environmental jurisprudence.”
  • Public Consultation: To date, the EIA process is the only legal process where information is shared, and the opinion of the public obtained on environmental impact before a decision is taken on a large-scale project. The disregard of this process by the draft notification is simply undemocratic.
  • Strategic Projects: The Draft Notification 2020 also completely exempts all defence and national security projects, as well as any other project involving “strategic considerations as determined by the government” from the need to obtain environmental clearances. This gives a virtual freedom to the government who could, for instance, define nuclear power projects, oil installations etc as “strategic projects.” All such projects are also exempt from public hearings.
  • Exemption: The building and construction sector is among the largest greenhouse gas emitters. However, as per the draft notification, the new construction projects up to 1,50,000 square metres (instead of the existing 20,000 square metres) do not need “detailed scrutiny” by the Expert Committee. Also, they need not to do EIA studies and public consultation.
  • Changes in definitions:For instance, the term “capital dredging,” which in the 2006 Notification covered non-maintenance dredging of both rivers and seabeds, is amended in the 2020 draft to refer only to seabed dredging for ports and such. However, dredging of riverbeds for building of navigable waterways, clearly a capital rather than maintenance activity, with untold ecological consequences and impact on livelihoods, has now simply been omitted from the definition.
Way Forward:

Any project impacts the environment which directly impacts the public life. So, public consultancy forms the basic feature of Environmental Impact Assessment. Diluting this very basic feature through the draft notification EIA, 2020, the government is moving into wrong direction. Instead the government should focus on creating awareness about the EIA process and releasing the EIA in regional languages to reach out to the most affected people.

Conclusion:

The government through the new draft Environment Impact Assessment, 2020 has shown its utter disrespect for public consultations and opinions expressed in response to such public notifications. The draft notification dilutes provisions related to public consultations and hearings.

The extension provided in the notice period till 30th June 2020 is a step-in right direction. Since the notification must be widely discussed and should be considered only after due democratic deliberation.

Source: Undemocratic Evasion of Environmental Responsibility

Mains Practice Question:

What is Environment Impact Assessment (EIA)? Discuss the features of draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2020.                                                 (250 Words)

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