A campaign has been unleashed, particularly in Tamil Nadu and by some non-governmental organisations (NGOs), against the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 notification issued by the Narendra Modi government, amending rules for giving approval to new industrial units.
The draft EIA seeks to consolidate the incremental amendments to the 2006 notification and operationalise (often conflicting) decisions of various courts by establishing a predictable regulatory regime for environmental clearance.
An EIA report is essential to start a new project, be it a major or a minor one, since it explains if there will be any impact on the environment or livelihoods.
If the environment is to be affected, say when a bridge is being constructed by cutting down trees, the EIA should explain in detail what will be done to compensate for the cutting down of trees.
The EIA report was made mandatory under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.
The Act was the result of the now-defunct Planning Commission asking the Department of Science and Technology to examine river valley projects from an environmental angle.
In 1994, the EIA report was made mandatory for expansion and modernisation too.
Changes in 2006 to Environment Protection Act, 1986
The Act was amended in 2006 making the EIA report mandatory for mining, thermal power projects, river valley projects, infrastructure development and electroplating and foundry units.
The 2006 amendment also put the onus of clearing the projects on the State government.
Till then, it was the responsibility of the Union government.
Also, the amended Act reduced to four, the processes for giving permission to a unit to go on stream, from the seven processes enumerated in the 1986 Act.
Importantly, the 2006 Act categorised projects as “A”, which are at national-level and “B”, which are State-level projects.
'B' was further categorised into B1, which required an EIA report, and 'B2', that does not require such a report.
Need For The 2020 Draft Notification
The government has come out with the draft EIA 2020 mainly in view of rulings by the Jharkhand High Court ruling on 28 November 2014 and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ruling in 2018.
The High Court had said that environmental clearance must be on merits, independent of any action for violation of environmental laws.
The NGT asked the Centre to strengthen the monitoring mechanism for compliance of prior environment clearance conditions.
Feeding in to irrational frenzy is the former Union Environment Minister and Congress politician Jairam Ramesh. During his stint in environment ministry, Ramesh had gained notoriety for his obstructionist approach. The environmental regulatory regime presided over by Ramesh was described by the then Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia as “ arbitrary, non-scientific and non-transparent".
Jairam Ramesh has strongly objected to the draft notification, claiming that the proposed changes in environmental clearance process for infrastructure projects “will routinely legitimise illegality and promote land grab, not development”.
“Misinterpretation” of Draft And A Sinister Campaign
Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, while acknowledging Ramesh’s correspondence in this issue, has said that his reactions were “unfounded” and “based on misinterpretation”.
It is not just Ramesh who was either misinterpreted the draft or has sounded. A video began doing rounds on Whatsapp yesterday (26 July) raising alarm over the draft notification and painting it as if the Modi government is out to wreak havoc on the environment.
The video seems to have been produced with the motive to mislead people as it is short on facts. In particular, it has raised an alarm over post-facto approvals, which it claimed could destroy living colonies and environment endangering the future generation.
A scrutiny of the video and reactions has revealed a broader conspiracy reminding one of the campaigns in Tamil Nadu to derail Neutrino Observatory, Hydrocarbon exploration project and the 2018 protests to close Thoothukudi Sterlite Copper plant.
Reactions and opposition of those objecting are revealing. Most of those who have opposed or objected are from Tamil Nadu and many of them have cut and pasted the same points on some websites.
An unbiased view of draft shows that these campaigns are being deliberately run to mislead the people, particularly ahead of the elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly in May next year. The attempts of these campaigns are to keep the anti-Modi sentiments alive, mainly after they succeeded in the 2019 elections to the Lok Sabha.
A Feature Of Draft EIA 2020 Notification
According to R S Kumar, an expert in desalinated water projects, a feature of the draft EIA 2020 notification is that any new project requires an economical and social management plan (ESMP) before it is approved.
Such a feature was not present in the earlier acts. “This provision will also take care of any economic impact that will be caused by the shifting or movement of people due to a particular project,” he told Swarajya.
He said that no project can be started now without a rapid environment impact assessment (REIA) or clearances from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Pollution Control Board.
“Earlier, it used to take a long period before a project got approval, particularly from MoEF side. Now, the approval will be given quickly,” Kumar said.
Delay for clearance to thermal power projects is one example of this.
Another feature of the draft notification is that the process of approval has been simplified. A project will now be cleared by an approved standing committee that includes experienced experts.
Coastal Zone Regulation: A Positive Amendment
The draft EIA 2020 notification attempts to regulate coastal regulatory (CRZ) and island CRZ (ICRZ) properly. Till now, there was no control over CRZ and ICRZ and many parties and companies have got away with violations.
Experts feel this is one reason for the hue and cry being raised over the draft notification as it will now check illegal trading, smuggling and probably save the affected from kangaroo courts that are familiar in Tamil Nadu.
Earlier, a person setting up a reverse osmosis plant 500 metres away from the coast need not get permission from the authorities. But the draft notification now requires permission wherever it is installed.
The Truth About Post-Facto Approval
One of the arguments against the draft EIA 2020 notification is the opponents claim that is that a project can begin operation without environment clearance and then seek post-facto approval.
Those campaigning against the 2020 draft notification claim that this will regularise the operations a person who violates environmental laws and thus endanger the environment.
Experts point out that there is an attempt to mislead people. There are two views on this, though. One view is that the post-facto approval will apply only for those projects that are currently in operation without getting the mandated environment clearance. No new project can seek post-facto approval.
Under the present Act, a unit operating this can be asked to be shut. The draft notification says that the impact of the unit on the environment will be assessed first to decide on whether it should continue operation even as it functions.
The other view is that the post-facto approval clause pertains to only sand mining by clay potters, community de-silting, dredging of dams, reservoirs and barrages, digging for drinking water and irrigation purposes, activities declared as non-mining by the State governments, solar thermal power plants, and units inside approved special economic zones or notified industrial clusters.
The draft notification has spelt out clearly what even small chemical or pharmaceutical unit will have to do to get permission for operation. This is totally in contrast to what some of the activists or NGOs would want people to believe in.
Approval for infrastructure projects
Opponents of the draft argue that no environment clearance is required for infrastructure projects and thus roads can be constructed taking away lands of poor farmers.
This is another attempt to mislead the people. The draft notification only speaks of highway projects in border areas which are crucial from the defence point of view.
By painting a wrong picture, the opponents seem to be aiding neighbouring countries such as China and Pakistan. In the recent standoff against China, well-constructed roads helped India build reinforcement in the border areas quickly.
The draft also exempts industries of “strategic importance” from getting environment clearance. This is in line with India’s defence requirements. This will ensure cutting of red tape and attracting more foreign direct investment.
Truth About Exemptions To Public Hearings
Opponents of the draft have two things to say on the public hearings or responses to new project proposals. One is that the proposed legislation exempts public hearing.
This is totally false. According to the draft notification, all projects require public hearings. The only exemptions are for things such as modernisation of irrigation systems, projects under notified industrial areas, projects that don’t have an environmental impact and those of national defence importance.
As regards the cut in the time given for public consultations, experts are of the view that this would reduce the manoeuvring by anti-social elements and vested interests.
Overall, the draft notification provides three months time for public consultation, which experts feel is sufficient.
Draft EIA Notification Protects Federal Structure
The draft notification, in fact, protects and preserves the federal structure of the Constitution. It has no provisions for the Union government to act arbitrarily.
The notification provides for setting up of State Environment Impact Assessment Authority by the States. Union Territories, too, get the power to set up such an authority.
The authority will have three years tenure and its chairperson will be appointed by the States. Only in cases where the State does not appoint a chairperson within 45 days, the Union Government will step in.
The other feature of the notification is that the National Green Tribunal’s functioning will be assessed by the Environmental Impact Assessment Authority.
Thus, the couple of changes the draft EIA 2020 notification is aimed at speeding up approvals and facilitate better compliance of environmental laws and not as is being portrayed by its opponents.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.