The Environment Impact Assessment, as the name suggests, is a planned intervention by the state that guides Infrastructure Development Projects in mitigating the impact that it could possibly have on the Environment and other socio-economic, cultural, and human-health factors.
The powers vested under Section 3 of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, led to the genesis of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, which was first introduced in 1994. Since its inception, this subordinate legislation has been amended many times. The primal notification that was conducive to the ethos of environmental protection has been gradually diluted in the fullness of time.
Nature is an existence devoid of human influence. The natural calamities have transformed from its innateness to be socially constructed through daily human intervention either for need or greed, collective interest or commercialization, or monopolisation. Thus, they are making impacts of natural calamities like landslides, earthquakes, no longer natural but a byproduct of human activities and manipulations.
The current EIA Notification, in its draft form, is controversial for the implications which may follow. And while the vulnerable landscape is congenital to the hills, we have our own set of distinct environmental concerns vis a vis the draft notification.
The ‘one size fits all’ narrative of the Draft EIA Notification,2020, will have severe repercussions in the hills. The yardsticks that attract the EIA Notification application have been kept uniform for the hilly regions and the plains. The threshold is kept at such a high that it excludes construction projects, which may have a potential impact on the mountainous region, from the ambit of an Environment Impact Assessment.
The draft notification severely erodes the foundations of an Inclusive Environmental Governance Regime by diminishing public consultation in the establishment of many development projects. The construction and extension of highways in the Border Areas, which comprises areas falling within 100 kilometres aerial distance from the Line of Actual Control with bordering countries of India, are now kept outside the ambit of Public Consultation.
For other projects that mandate public consultation, the period within which the public is supposed to file their responses against the establishment of projects has decreased to 20 days from 30 days. EIA should ideally secure sustainable development goals through public participation, wherein informed public opinions are accommodated. Therefore, public participation should be encouraged, which further transforms into a legal framework regulating development activities.
The draft further states that no information about Defence, Security, and other Strategic Projects will be available in the public domain. Without denying the importance of strengthening the defence and security infrastructure, the lack of definition given to ‘other strategic projects’ makes room for ambiguity and arbitrary actions. Consequently, the government can now declare any project to be strategic and avoid furnishing the details about such projects to the public.
Our region, being crowned with hills and blessed with pleasant weather, has a great influx of tourists every year from all parts of the world. The local populace is highly dependent on the tourism sector for economic assistance. The potential of developing our region as an eco-tourism hub may be severely affected by unprecedented and unethical forms of infrastructural developments, which may further add to the already existing issues of congestion, scarcity of water, problems of waste management, etc.
The river Teesta is of major significance to the people in the hills of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, and Sikkim. The river has been subjected to an unprecedented number of River Valley Hydropower development projects amidst the fact that Teesta lies in a high seismic zone. The areas parallel to it are prone to rampant landslides. Due to its extremely controlled flows, the river level has risen to be almost at par with the highway that runs parallel to it, causing submergence of a large area and increasing threats to life. The draft fails to recognise the need for a Cumulative Impact Assessment of all the hydropower projects on a particular river and maintains its Single Project Assessment practice.
The draft consists of many more intricacies that are inclined towards the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ rather than Environment Protection.
The importance of infrastructure development in the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong is very well known to us. But the question remains, should we let the externalities in the disguise of development cripple our environment when we’ve already missed the bus?
Vacay Workers: The Vacay Workers is a volunteering organization based in Kalimpong. They are currently working to formulate a recommendation document with regards to the Draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2020, to be sent to the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change before the 11 of August 2020. You may also send your inputs to them at email@example.com