What is EIA and why is India’s new EIA draft problematic?

I am not much of a doomsday enthusiast. I have hope that our world will not just survive but also thrive. One day, all of us will realize the enormity of global warming and its effects on communities. But, we don’t have time to wait until we all come together to make reparations for the inhuman exploitation of nature. There are immediate threats like India’s 2020 draft of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), under the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA) of 1986, becomes law. 

What is EIA? 

The United Nations Environment Programme defines EIA as a process to identify the environmental, social, and economic impacts of a project prior to decision-making. It looks at the socio-economic, cultural, and human-health impacts, both beneficial and adverse. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, it is as much about compliance, monitoring, and enforcement of laws as the assessment in itself. This process provides tangible measures to mitigate adverse effects and predicts whether there will be significant environmental effects. Ethically performed EIA wants the community to participate, inform other stake holders, like the government, and creates a foundation for environmentally conscious projects. 

Why is India’s new EIA draft problematic?

The first EIA notification in India was issued in 1994 under the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA) of 1986. It was modified in 2006 and the purpose of both was to assess and regulate the impact of new projects on the environment. As per this version, any EIA would be presented for a public hearing. The public would get 30 days to register their suggestions, doubts, and rejection of the proposed projects. 

However, in the new draft proposed by the Union government this year, there are provisions that are rather problematic. It cuts down the 30-day response period from the public to just 20 days. According to another provision in the new draft, a project operating in violation of the EPA can now apply for clearance post facto. There will be certain projects which will fall outside the ambit of the EIA as well. These include projects that the government labels as “strategic” and no information on “such projects shall be placed in the public domain.” The list of projects exempted also includes all inland waterways and national highways projects, and construction projects of up to 150,000 sq. m. Further, violations can only be reported by a representative of the government or the project proponent, and not citizens, giving a lot of discretionary powers to authorities.

Why is a strong EIA practice important?

One of the current examples of why EIA is important is the Assam gas leak. Oil India Limited’s (OIL) Baghjan Oilfield operated by John Energy Pvt Ltd in Tinsukia district, Assam, had a blowout on May 27 and the oil-and-gas well eventually caught fire on June 9. It was so intense it could be seen from 10 km away. The fire displaced people, destroyed biodiversity, and ended the livelihoods of 11,000 people. The National Green Tribunal has asked OIL to pay only Rs 25 crore for the massive damage to the land, habitat, and the ecology of the place. This money won’t be distributed among the people affected, who might become climate change refugees within their own country. A detailed inquiry is still pending. 

The blowout was due to a procedural lapse. As per the existing EIA, there need to be public hearings so the local community and the public at large can register their complaints, doubts or suggestions whenever a project that will affect the environment is taken up. However, OIL skipped public hearings when they wanted to expand its drilling operations inside Assam’s Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and obtained environment clearance in May 2020.

The project was excused from getting public hearings “… due to the vulnerability of the area, the project will meet its death.” Instead of examining how to make it least harmful to the fragile ecology, it was deemed that conducting such hearings was “practically impossible,” as per Minutes of the December 2019 meeting of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, according to Down to Earth. Meanwhile, there are three more current proposals for oil and gas exploration in Tinsukia. 

This problem will only be exacerbated because of the new draft of EIA. As of January 16, 2020, all on and offshore oil and gas exploration projects are classified as ‘B2’ and they will not need public hearing under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006.

What are its implications on people and the environment?

Oil and gas exploration projects are only one kind of large scale projects that can do a 180 on the lives of thousands of people, mostly the Adivasis, whose opinion won’t even be heard. Chemical plants (remember Bhopal Gas Leak?), dams, and coal and mining projects will also get the same privileged status. So will anything the central government deems “strategic.” The new draft will also make many fragile ecosystems fair game to those who have the highest bidding power, e.g. Reliance industries Limited, Adani group, etc. 

As per the EIA 2020 draft, projects will require clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, after they have gone on the floor. “This post-facto clearance is problematic. The draft will directly affect the lives of Adivasis since it’s the places they live that are being diverted for coal mining. Their livelihoods depend on this. If the post-factor part is removed, they will get a chance to speak up,” says Vikrant Tongad, an environmental activist and founder of Social Action for Forest & Environment (SAFE).

He further points out that stopping public hearings in some cases is against the right to speech. 

“They have also reduced the number of days given for public hearing to 20 days from 30 days. Corporates complain that their projects are delayed because of this but the citizens do their work in the prescribed window. It is a failure of the system since they are understaffed which causes the delay,” he added. “The time period is also necessary as some people travel 30-40 km to come for the public hearing as most affected areas don’t have internet or connectivity,” he said. For instance, people protested against the Pancheshwar Hydropower Dam in Uttarakhand but weren’t able to reach for the public hearing due to cloud bursts. 

Rampant deforestation in the name of development will be one of the biggest effects the new draft will have putting India’s rich biodiversity at risk. “This deforestation is not generational development,” added Tongad. The threat of large scale deforestation also increases the possibility of India’s contribution to climate change. India may not be as big a contributor as compared to other countries in the northern hemisphere where 13 of the 15 largest countries by GDP emit far more green house gases than the southern hemisphere does. However, a study by scientists showed that the people who will be most hurt by climate change are the people who did the least to cause it. But if the central government has its way India could soon be on its way to have more of a hand in climate change and be responsible for the suffering of its own people and their future. 

The government is actively trying to stamp out dissent

The new EIA draft has been widely criticised, with several environmental experts drawing attention to the dilution of various rules which would allow rampant infrastructure development at the cost of the environment. However, the government, that conspicuously proposed the draft at a time when India is grappling with a pandemic, has actively tried to justify this gross violation of rights for ease of business under the garb of vikaas. In its pursuit of stifling dissent, yet again, the government is pulling all stops to have its way. 

It banned three websites–Let India Breathe, Fridays for Future (FFF), the India chapter of the international environmental campaign led by Greta Thunberg, and There is No Earth B–all of which are environmental advocacy groups that were speaking out against the draft. Delhi Police used the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to block FFF and later claimed it was an error. The websites, however, were reinstated many days later. 

Adding to the list of controversies the draft has been dogged by, the mandatory public feedback window which was set to expire on June 10, was extended by the environment ministry to August 10 as there was a delay in publishing the draft in the Gazette due to the pandemic. Unhappy with this, environment minister Prakash Javadekar overturned the decision made by the ministry he heads and set the new deadline to June 30, only to be extended to August 11 after the intervention of the Delhi High Court. It also directed the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to publish the notification in 22 official languages, which it hadn’t done yet. The Karnataka High Court has also asked the Center to extend the deadline further. 

The government may tell you that what it’s doing is to make the country more aatmanirbhar (self-reliant) but it is doing so at the cost of the future of the country and the planet. 

Can you make a difference?

Yes, you can urge the Center to withdraw the draft and strengthen EIA 2006 instead. Over 4 lakh objections have been received by the environment ministry against the draft, and if you want to add your voice to stop this draft from becoming a law, there is time until August 11, 2020 for you to send suggestions to the Ministry. 

Here’s how you can help

Send your suggestions to eia2020-moefcc@gov.in 

You can sign this petition http://chng.it/9Q8FZnnq 

If you want to read more about the issues in the EIA 2020, go here https://we.tl/t-lwHFgZ2mbh.

You can use this draft email to write to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. You can find it here https://linktr.ee/LetIndiaBreathe

The new draft and the problems associated with it have also been explained in various videos in multiple languages. Here are a few:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWCjhj035WY (Hindi)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j09wS_lFbag&feature=youtu.be (Malayalam)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPeMD2NazlY&feature=youtu.be (Tamil)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uxh3MxOvDIs&feature=youtu.be (English)

For further reading:

https://www.newsclick.in/Environmental-Groups-Websites-Blocked-Criticising-Draft-EIA-2020

https://www.livemint.com/mint-lounge/features/eia-draft-2020-weakening-an-important-environmental-safeguard-11593611958824.html

https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/pollution/assam-gas-leak-ngt-orders-oil-to-pay-rs-25-cr-forms-high-level-committee-71969

https://scroll.in/article/964362/the-story-of-the-assam-gas-leak-and-the-intricate-operation-to-plug-it

https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/environment/three-oil-exploration-proposals-up-for-consideration-in-assam-even-as-baghjan-smoulders-72068

https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/pollution/assam-gas-leak-and-fire-yet-another-case-of-procedural-lapse-71703

https://www.livelaw.in/environment/consider-extending-time-for-submitting-suggestionsobjections-to-draft-eia-notification-160007

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