The draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), 2020, has invited severe criticism and concern from environment activists, political leaders and the public at large when called for public feedback. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change placed the notification on public domain on March 12, inviting feedback from the general public. The time inviting the feedback was extended by Delhi High court till August 11. The widespread protest arises the question: whether this draft is actually on par with the environment or is it disguised as an environmental draft just to help the industrialists exploit the environment?
WHAT IS EIA?
Environment Impact Assessment is commonly described as an assessment of the impact of planned activities on the environment, including impacts on biodiversity, vegetation and ecology, water and air. Environment Impact Assessment is significantly more than a process for getting an environmental license or permit. It plans to limit, maintain a strategic distance from or balance the environmental and social effects of a proposed development project. If done properly, it can even advance sustainability in the region where the project is being executed. It makes a scientific estimation of a probable impact of a proposed project, such as mine, dam, industrial unit or waste treatment plant. In this process, people’s perspective is taken into consideration before granting final approval to such project or activity. It is basically, a decision-making tool to decide whether the project ought to be endorsed or not.
Properly led EIA likewise decreases clashes by advancing community participation, illuminating decision-makers, and helping lay the base for environmentally sound projects. Benefits of integrating EIA have been observed in all stages of a project, from exploration and planning, through construction, operations, decommissioning, and beyond site closure.
EIA IN INDIA: A BACKGROUND
India being a signatory to Stockholm declaration (1972) on the environment, enacted the law to control water and air pollution in the year 1974 and 1981 respectively. However, an umbrella Act for environmental protection was legislated in 1986 only after the Bhopal gas leak disaster (1984).
In 1994, India notified its first EIA norms, under Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The aim was to set a legal framework for regulating activities that, access, utilize and affect the environment. Modified draft in 2006 replaced the draft of 1994. Earlier this year, i.e., 2020, the government in order to incorporate relevant court orders and amendments and to provide more transparency to EIA process, redrafted it.
WHAT IS CONTROVERSIAL IN EIA DRAFT 2020?
The new draft which has been proposed with the object of making processes more expedient and transparent, in effect, proposes the removal of several activities from the purview of public consultation, in the name of ‘development’. Hence, several environmentalists have argued that this EIA draft 2020 is a backward departure from the draft of 2006, while the others contend that the re-drafted notice doesn’t diminish political and bureaucratic hold over the EIA process.
The two prominent changes made in EIA draft 2020 are – i) post facto clearances and ii) abandoning of public trust doctrines.
The notification contemplates two kinds of approval – prior environment clearance (EC) with the approval of the expert committee and environmental permission (EP) without the approval of the expert committee. What concerns the most is that the draft has excluded 40 different projects from prior EC and EP.
Additionally, the draft exempts several projects such as B2 projects, irrigation, chemical fertilizers, biomedical waste treatment facilities, highways or expressways etc from public consultation. The main reason behind the protest is over apprehensions that exemption of public consultation for listed projects, expansion and modernization will be a free ticket to exploit the environment, as these will be carried out without any oversight. Any project which had acquired land illegally or by coercion or fraud and operates without any environmental safeguards.
In April 2020, during the lockdown, a coal mining project was approved in the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve Forest through video conference. On the other hand, a penalty of Rs 43.25 crore was levied by the Assam Forest Department for ravaging the Dehing Patkai Reserve by illegal mining for a period of 16 years from 2003. This situation is quite problematic as the mining project gets benefited in spite of its illegal violations.
The 2020 draft does not offer any remedy for a political and bureaucratic stronghold on the EIA process. Rather, it proposes to strengthen the government’s discretionary power while limiting public engagement in safeguarding the environment.
The proposed draft goes against the polluter pays principle, sustainable environment and precautionary principle established by the courts in India. For a social welfare state like India, the Directive Principle of State Policy, it is essential to maintain a balance between economic development and the environment.
The EIA draft notification 2020 also exempts reporting by the public of violations and non-compliances. The government will only take reports from authorities, regulatory committee, violator-promoter.
In India, irrespective of the ruling parties, the environmental laws and policies have been favouring the corporates and industrialists when in prima facie, it should be considerate about the environment. The proposed draft favours the project proponents/industrialists by taking down public consultations, accepting flawed and faulty EIA reports. This draft clearly violates the main objective of the Environment Protection Act, which is to protect and improve the environment. Hence, the EIA draft 2020 is against the parent Act and is legally untenable. There are many people who are the shareholders of such project and they are unaware of the proposed draft EIA 2020. Under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, as a citizen, we have the right to participate in the decision-making process.
Sites referred to:
 https://environmentclearance.nic.in/writereaddata/Draft_EIA_2020.pdf accessed on 1Sep 2020.
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