Written by: Adarsh Srinivasan, Ananya Bansal, Anvitha Kollipara, Kriti Raheja and Navya Khurana
On the international front, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen to portray his government as a protector of the environment. At the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York, he spoke of judicious use of resources and living within our means. However, India’s own domestic policy action is dismal. India ranked 168th out of 180 countries on the 2019 Environment Performance Index, slipping from 155th in 2014.
Over the last six years, there has been a systematic easing of environmental regulation, starting with the removal of the ban on opening factories in eight ‘critically-polluted’ industrial areas in June 2014. The latest assault comes in the form of the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020, which eases the process of obtaining environment clearance for new/expansion projects and facilitates the legitimisation of defaulting ones.
Despite all that is happening in the country at this moment, we cannot allow the government to dilute the environmental law. In a subcontinent with some of the foulest air on the planet, ever-increasing incidences of floods and droughts that destroy communities, and recent disasters such as gas leaks and fires, a dilution of EIA will only exacerbate the current issues it faces. Obviously, one cannot forget the longer-term issues of climate change and sustainability that continue to threaten every citizen, in the plains of Punjab, the coast of Mumbai or the valleys of Assam.
Impact assessment is a part of the policy cycle wherein future consequences of a current/proposed action are analysed. Impact assessments include social impact assessments, health impact assessments and environment impact assessments (EIAs). Impact assessment is largely a theory-based activity that seeks to establish a ‘chain of causation’, which results from a specific intervention in a given context. The advantage of EIA is that it ensures adherence to relevant laws and regulations, reduces adverse environmental effects, and balances economic and environmental benefit.
EIA was first introduced in the US in 1969, in the wake of the publishing of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, which detailed the various unintended consequences of pesticide use. Today, over 100 countries around the world – from New Zealand to Ukraine – undertake EIAs in some form.
The history of EIA in India began in 1976-77, when the Planning Commission requested the Department of Science and Technology to consider environmental aspects when examining river-valley projects. However, it wasn’t until 1994 that EIA was put in place in its current form, when the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests made Environmental Clearance (EC) mandatory for a range of activities under the Environmental (Protection) Act 1986. A 2006 notification expanded the scope of EIA to include more types of projects and put the onus on the state government to clear several of them. Listed below are some salient features of EIA in India:
To improve the ‘Ease of Doing Business’, according to the Central government, the new notification will streamline the process of obtaining environmental clearance and avoids delays. A closer look at the notification reveals otherwise – it tampers with the very basic structure of EIA.
Most notably, the notification weakens the public consultation process, which is recognised by researchers as being good practice. A long list of projects to be exempted from public hearing is provided; this includes projects of “strategic consideration” to be determined by the Central government. Furthermore, no information about such projects will be released to the public. The vague phrasing in the notification places enormous discretionary power at the hands of the Central government.
Once a project is declared of “strategic consideration”, the government is free to act with no consideration towards the environment and the local populace. The same exemption is given to an area within 100 km (aerial distance) of an international border, which includes huge swathes of Northeast India.
The notification also reduces the time period during which the public can submit responses during a public hearing from 30 days to 20 days, and cuts the overall duration of a public hearing from 45 days to 40 days. These reductions are insignificant compared to the average bureaucratic delay of 238 days in granting environmental clearance and serve only to take away power from Indian citizens should one want to oppose the displacement of a tribe or the destruction of the flora and fauna of their surroundings.
Another dangerous aspect of the new notification is the introduction of post-facto approvals for projects that did not obtain Environmental Clearance or violated the terms of the clearance, upon the payment of a fine intended to recoup the cost of the negative externality. Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta calls this “a mockery of the law”.
The notification’s post-approval compliance mechanism is highly problematic – project proponents will only have to submit compliance reports every year, as opposed to each six-month period as stipulated in the 2006 notification. This would make locals more vulnerable to the environmental impact of a defaulting project. Additionally, the 2020 notification allows proponents to submit documents upon which compliance is to be assessed. This leaves room for the proponents to cherry-pick data which downplays the scale of ecological impact and removes critical neutrality from the EIA process.
In 2016, the Modi administration allowed construction projects measuring 20,000-150,000 m2 in area to proceed without environmental clearance, but the measure was soon quashed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Under the new notification, such projects are to be placed under ‘Category B2’, which exempts them from most aspects of the EIA process.
The notification largely excludes coal prospecting and solar park projects from the EIA mechanism. While one could argue that these measures are necessary to ensure India’s energy security, it is important to question the ethics behind leaving locals out of the picture when such projects could directly impact their health and well-being.
Coal mining is known to lead to chemical, air and dust pollution, and while coal prospecting only seeks to identify deposits of coal, a huge pro-coal lobby could develop in the case that coal is found in a particular area, and the local populace would barely be able to mount a resistance. The installation of solar panels requires the clearing and grading of a vast area, which leads to soil compaction and increased erosion.
While there is general consensus among environment experts against the notification, there are some changes to EIA that can be viewed in positive light. The notification allows for many procedures under the EIA process to be conducted online, which could facilitate data collection and analysis. It further assimilates the many scattered amendments made by the Centre since 2006. Finally, the notification includes a new definitions clause that could help address the current ambiguity.
It can be argued that the EIA had many structural issues to begin with and has been hollowed out over many years, suggesting that the current draft notification is only the final nail in the coffin. The 2006 notification also allowed for skipping public consultation if the situation is reportedly not conducive to consulting the public, a loophole that was abused time and again. The quality of Indian EIA reports has also been questioned, as reports are often found to be incomplete or containing forged data.
Loopholes were frequently exploited to escape the EIA process. For example, when the Centre initiated the Uttarakhand Char Dham highway project in 2016, it refused to obtain environmental clearance by arguing that the project was a combination of several highway-expansion schemes that each covered less than 100 km – only highway extensions of over 100 km require an EIA.
Although petitioners argued that the project did include extensions of over 100 km at a stretch, the government was ultimately able to get away with construction in an ecologically-sensitive zone with no oversight. It must be noted that the Char Dham project links key Hindu pilgrimage sites, and was therefore seen as appealing to a core voter base.
While the old EIA may have had its limitations, some of its best practices put India among an elite group of countries with similar legislation. It will be an uphill climb to make the EIA as effective as it was set out to be, but we cannot allow our country to fall backwards.
You have the ability to make your grievances with the new notification heard. Do your part in building a healthier, cleaner and sustainable India of tomorrow by raising your voice about these issues.
About the authors: The authors are students of the Young Researchers for Social Impact (YRSI) Program conducted by Young Leaders for Active Citizenship (YLAC). YRSI identifies promising high schoolers and builds their capacity as critical thinkers and problem solvers to produce thought-provoking solutions to pressing issues that affect our societies today. This article was written as part of the June 2020 edition of the programme.