The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change introduced a Draft EIA Notification in March 2020 seeking to dilute environmental protections, in particular the provisions for Environmental Impact Assessment processes including public hearings as a condition for giving permission to projects.
Students from Fridays for Future India (inspired by Greta Thunberg’s Friday strikes against climate change) ran an effective campaign alerting young people all over India about the implications of the dilution, and asking them to mail the Environment ministry with letters against the dilution. Thousands of people sent letters to the inbox of the Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar. Javadekar, who is also the Minister for Information and Broadcasting, and the Modi Government’s police reacted vindictively. The Delhi Police sent a notice to the managers of the Fridays for Future India website invoking the anti-terrorism law UAPA, accusing them of challenging the ‘sovereignty and integrity of India’, and disabling the site.
The journalist who eventually broke the story of this persecution of students on Twitter, wrote “I reached out to several friends in the media, hoping someone would take on the story. It needed the immediacy of television news and could have been carried in the next news bulletin but since the environment minister also happens to be the Information and Broadcasting minister, I was told no one in the news television business would touch the story.”
After social media spread the news and the Delhi Police felt the heat, the police claimed they had mentioned UAPA “inadvertently”. This was a laughable excuse of course. But UAPA or not, the fact is that an Environment Ministry spokesperson has confirmed that the Delhi Police took action on a complaint lodged by the Minister Javadekar himself, after he received over a lakh mails on his personal email account. So the Minister of Information does not want young people of India to email him and communicate with him? And why is the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, who is so incensed at emails sent to him, blocking websites that educated people about the EIA notification?
Meanwhile, the Central Government told the Karnataka High Court, responding to a petition pointing out that affected communities could not access the draft EIA and comment on it, that there was no need to publish the draft EIA in any other language other than English and Hindi. Rejecting this submission, the Karnataka HC asked the Centre to give “wide publicity” on the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2020 in all the regional languages.
Below is the text of the letter sent by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change with responses and objections to the Draft EIA Notification 2020.
The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change introduced the Draft EIA Notification in March 2020, with a deadline of 30 June for the public to file responses, suggestions, or objections.
The observations and objections of the CPI(ML) Liberation on the Draft Notification are as follows:
1) The Draft Notification seeks to dilute the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process, and favour industrial projects and their “ease of doing business” on the pretext of providing an economic stimulus to India’s economy after the damage done by the pandemic and lockdown. The EIA process provides local communities a way to participate in evaluating the possible environmental impacts of a proposed project or development before the latter get approval. It should be remembered that the Covid-19 pandemic itself is a result, in large part, of environmental devastation being witnessed globally. The response to such a pandemic should be to strengthen rather than dilute environmental protections.
2) Introducing the Draft Notification during a pandemic and lockdown has meant that the Draft has not even reached the communities which stand to be most directly affected by the proposed changes. They do not even know about the changes, let alone being able to consult their communities and contribute their objections and opinions. Therefore, for this reason alone, the Draft should be immediately withdrawn pending the pandemic period. No changes to the existing EIA rules should be made until and unless the marginalised, farming, coastal and forest dwelling communities are able to participate in the public discussion and decision-making process.
3) The Draft seeks to get rid of the requirement to hold public hearings/consultations for many projects. Small dams, industrial complexes, mining projects, highway expansions, and several hazardous industries like tanning, halogen, petroleum will no longer need public consultation. This means that local communities that stand to lose land, forests, and livelihood, or be exposed to pollution as a result of the project, will have no way to make their concerns and objections heard and addressed. This is a profoundly anti-democratic change, that excludes local communities from any say in decision-making about projects. Polluting industries and corporations, as well as other projects will be able to get clearance without consulting local communities.
4) In cases where public hearings are still required, the time period for public consultations has been reduced to a mere 20 days. This is highly inadequate, especially in rural and remote areas where travel, communication, sharing of information, and consultation take time.
5) The proposed changes seek to legitimise actions by projects that are currently listed as violations (i.e, starting construction without a valid clearance). The Draft is redefining illegalities as legal, in order to favour corporate and commercial interests, not the interests of the environment.
6) The provision for online/digital approvals is dangerous, since no one should have the power to make decisions about the environment without visiting the area that stands to be affected, and studying the ground, and the impact, closely.
7) The Draft seeks to weaken the definition of “Eco Sensitive Zone”, making it easier for ecologically harmful projects to get clearance.
8) The Draft now clears the way for many projects to get “post-facto clearances” - i.e clearances after they have already wreaked destruction on the environment. This defeats the very purpose of an EIA, which is to ensure that development and industrial projects are set up in a manner as to inflict the least possible damage to the environment and local communities. Damage to the environment is irreversible.
9) The Draft allows industries to “self-report” violations of environmental regulations. This is basically a license to break the laws protecting the environment. Further, project owners will now have to file compliance reports only once a year, instead of once every six months. So, gas leaks, fires, accidents and other disasters or violations that happen in this period may go under-reported or unreported.
10) According to the Draft, the compliance mechanism requires the project owners/promoters to file documents on which the environmental impact is to be assessed. This means that promoters can conveniently hide documents and information which may reflect adversely on their capacity to damage the environment.
11) The Draft seeks to reduce the role of experts in the assessment process, and reduce the list of people/organizations who can be included in committees.
The proposed Draft EIA is intended to protect the interests of investors and corporates only, not the environment or local communities. It will inflict far-reaching on the environment, and on India’s people. Consequently, the CPI(ML) demands that the proposed Draft EIA be withdrawn forthwith.