Recently, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has proposed a draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 , that seeks to replace the current notification which goes back to 2006.The draft notification is issued under the powers vested in the Central Government under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, to take all such measures for “protecting and improving the quality of the environment.According to the Government, the new notification is being brought in order to make the process more transparent and expedient by the implementation of an online system, further delegation, rationalisation and standardisation of the process. However, draft notification has come up with lot of exemptions. It proposes to ease process for businesses , bolster the Government’s discretionary power while limiting public engagement in safeguarding the environment.
UNDERSTANDING THE EIA PROCESS
The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process scrutinises the potential environmental impact and negative externalities of a proposed project. It also determines whether the project 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).EAC consists of scientists and project management experts .The EAC frames the scope of the EIA study and a preliminary report is prepared .That report is published, and a public consultation process takes place .Objections can be heard including from project-affected people.The EAC can then make a final appraisal of the project and forward that to the regulatory authority: Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).The regulatory authority is ordinarily obliged to accept the decision of the EAC.
DISCUSSION : EIA 2006 VS EIA 2020
Streamlining the EIA process and bringing it in line with recent judgments are the reasons given by the government for latest notification. But Draft EIA Notification disables it, shrinks its scope and removes what teeth it did have .It is completely contrary to the principles of environment protection .The most devastating blow to the EIA regime is the creation of an ex-post-facto clearance route:
* Ex Post Facto clearance : It applies to ongoing or completed project for which no prior permission was sought or granted, and the construction of the project took place regardless.This is the most absurd amendment in EIA 2020 according to me. You first start a project, clear acres and acres of forest land, bring about irreversible social, economical, environmental and health risks and then apply for environmental clearance. Wow! You are good to go
* Public consultation diluted : In projects concerning environment, decisions are made through public hearing and public consultation is an integral part. In EIA 2006, the time for public hearing was 30 days but in EIA 2020, an amendment is made and time is cutdown to 20 days. There is no enough time to study the case and for project-affected people, who are frequently forest dwellers or otherwise do not have access to information and technology & this will make it harder to put forth representations.
* Compliance Report Issue : In 2006 EIA, industries and projects have to submit a project report to the Government in every six months but in EIA 2020, report has to be submitted once a year. A year is a lot of time for irreversible environmental ,social and health consequences to be done. It is ridiculous that Government is trusting or choosing to trust these companies that have a track record of violating environmental regulations
* Projects to have strategic status :
Through the draft notification, the Central Government gets the power to categorise projects as “Strategic”.Once a project is considered as strategic, the draft notification states that no information related to such projects shall be placed in the public domain . This could be a huge protection to unethical industries, mining and irrigation projects. They are free to hide information from the people under this rubric
Environmental regulation must balance damage to the environment with sustainable development and possible benefits but the new notification lays more emphasis on the benefits and so must be reconsidered.The ministry, instead of reducing the time for public consultation, should focus on ensuring access to information as well as awareness about the public hearing and its impact upon the whole EIA process. With the EIA, we also need Social impact assessment to achieve sustainable development in true sense.
(The author is an environment activist & member of JKIFTS)