Environmental problems not only threaten the viability of the transactions but may also result in business discontinuity or massive public damage.
To avoid any kind of potential risks or damage, on the environment, due to a proposed project or development, a process of Environment Impact Assessment (“EIA”) is conducted to evaluate the environmental consequences and to give an “environment clearance” specifying the guidelines to cause the least possible damage. EIA acts as a decisive factor while approving the particular project as it is inter-related with the socio-economic, cultural and human health concerns.
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (“MoEFCC”) has proposed, to replace the present notification which dates back to 2006, a draft Environment Impact Assessment (“EIA”) notification 2020. Over the years, several modifications have been made to the notification. However, the suggested notification has created a controversy as the new draft allows wide exemptions for the appraisal process of a development project, leaving serious loopholes. The Government rather than making the provisions more stringent for environmental clearances, has paved an easy pass for various industries to exploit our natural resources and shared ecosystems.
The notification comes under the purview of Environment (Protection)Act, 1986, enacted to provide the protection and improvement in the quality of the environment. The proposed draft was published as an Official Gazette on March 23, a day before the nationwide lockdown commenced. Usually, the public can voice their concerns within 60 days, which has ended on May 21, 2020. However, the Ministry has extended the deadline until June 30, 2020. Further, the Delhi High Court on June, 30 extended the period for making suggestions on the draft notification till August 11, 2020.
This draft notification has received criticism from the several sections of the society and Environmentalists have raised their voices against the draft’s changes, knowing that this proposal will cause permanent damage to our country’s landscape, coastal regions and indigenous ecosystems and is an undemocratic evasion of environmental responsibility.
The draft changes include:
- Public Consultations Weakened: Public opinion is a vital component while conducting the EIA, under which concerns of the local affected people and other stakeholders are considered. It has been proposed that the time given to the locals to raise their concerns should be reduced to 20 days from the current 30 days period. Reduction in time will cause a problem in those areas where people are unaware of the process itself. If adequate time is not given to understand the proposal and submit the views, comments and suggestions by those whose livelihood is impacted, then such public hearing would not be fair. Hence, the process as a whole will lack transparency and credibility.
- Compliance and Monitoring of Projects: Regular compliance check ensures that the project is not hurting social, cultural and aesthetic factors. However, the proposed notification suggests that the Environment Compliance Report has to be submitted only once a year instead of once every six months as mentioned in the existing notification (2006 notification).
- Push for Post Facto environmental approvals: The drafts seeks to validate projects, for post-facto approvals as long as the project is permissible in the area, that have violated the environmental clearance norms. The approval would be granted even if the construction has commenced or has been running in phases without obtaining the environmental clearances. Supreme Court has also dismissed such clearances saying that given the “social and environmental impact of industrial activity, environmental compliance must not be seen as an obstacle to development but as a measure towards achieving sustainable development and inter-generational equity.”
- Exemptions Galore: The bracket of exemptions has widened and the number of industries, projects and activities that do not require to conduct the EIA process has increased. The Central Government shall have the authority to categorize the projects as “strategic.” No information of such projects shall be placed in the public domain once the project is termed as strategic. The project proponents or the government authority shall possess the right to report the violations which are against the principle of natural justice. As per the draft notification, the new construction projects up to 1,50,000 sq. meters, instead of the current 20,000 sq. meters, do not need the “detailed scrutiny” by the Expert Committee. Moreover, they are not required to conduct the assessment procedure and submit it for the public consultation leaving the general public out of the environment- picture.
It’s rather deplorable of how the draft notification was released during lockdown when the whole country is struggling to survive the pandemic. To take away public’s right to opine on developmental projects is undemocratic and a clear attack on tribals and indigenous people.Nishant Bangera, Environmental Activist and Founder of Muse Foundation.
To conclude, on a positive note, the draft notification consolidates the EIA rules and helps to mitigate the uncertainty in the present law. Although, it is very essential to address the above issues for the environmental safety, health policy and protection of our ecosystem. If the notification is approved, it will shrink the scope of EIA and is against the concept of sustainability. Paying compensation for the damage done will do no good to our ecology. Capital is important but it should not in any way be compromised or equated with the environment. The present health emergency is the wakeup call for all of us and now, is the time to retrace our steps and realize that it is our actions that brought us into the grave situation like this. Consenting the draft notification will be a menace to our society and shall have a direct bearing on the living and working conditions of the people and the ecosystem. Measures should be implemented to impart education and create awareness, especially in the areas where people are unaware of the environmental issues and frequent interaction with local community and sustainability initiatives shall certainly aid in the assessment procedure.