New Notification Makes It Clear That Govt Sees EIA As a Hindrance

The EIA protocol is our last defense against the over-exploitation of our natural environment.

Published04 Jun 2020, 05:12 PM IST
Opinion
4 min read

The world continues to find itself in the grip of a pandemic resulting in an unprecedented crisis. The light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a drug or a vaccine appears to be still distant.

Governments around the world, while busy devising strategy to contain this threat, are also feverishly devising plans to resuscitate the economy that is currently on a death bed.

Will Environmental Concerns Play A Part In The Post-COVID World?

The jury is still out on the kind of world that we are going to build on a virus-devastated landscape. The 11th edition of Petersburg Climate Dialogue, conducted in a virtual format between 27-28 April was one such initiative.

Attended by the ministers from 30 countries, the meeting deliberated on how to organize a “green” economic recovery, once the acute phase of the pandemic is over.

Such high-level gatherings reflect the growing realization that the climate change could soon emerge into a deeper enduring problem than a transient threat of a virus, a concern also voiced recently by the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres.

It is not known if India had indeed sent a delegation to this conference, a forum that could be used to amplify India's concerns in a post-corona world.

What should be the underpinnings of a post-pandemic revival strategy? Do we agree on an economic recovery plan that hinges primarily on an environment-friendly development?

The economic package recently released by the Union Finance Minister gives no hints on the environmental aspects of economic rebooting. If the words of another minister are to be taken as a reflection of the discussion within some quarters of power, then one could certainly find it a bit reassuring.

While taking part in a discussion organized by a television channel (NDTV), Nitin Gadkari highlighted the need to maintain the positive change of seeing blue skies even after the lifting of the lock down and the need to bring down the air-pollution levels in India’s cities.

The Minister said that to make our society better, “the need is to bring together three things: ethics, economy and ecology”.

By any standard, this is an uplifting message, that too coming from a senior minister who is also in charge of the mammoth river-interlinking project – an ill-conceived plan that will sound death knell to country’s riverine eco-systems.

New Draft Notification Waters Down Environmental Impact Assesment Norms

Our hopes should soar into the sky when we conjoin the Union Minister’s words with that of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who made this statement on 2 October 2018:

“Indians are committed to saving the environment. Climate and calamity are directly related to culture, if climate is not the focus of culture, calamity cannot be prevented. When I say, Sabka Saath I also include nature in it”.

He was receiving the Champions of the Earth Award, the UN’s highest recognition for environmental services.

Again, addressing delegates of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals in Gandhinagar (15-22 February 2020), he highlighted India's role in championing the cause of climate action based on values of conservation, sustainable life style and a green development model.

Such statements naturally could generate hope that India is firmly entrenched on the path to environmental protection.

But, a damper on our optimism can be easily located within the confines of the government itself. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in their draft notification on Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020, released in March, dashes all our hopes of a rethink within the government.

The new EIA notification, once finalized, is intended to contain drastically watered down norms for the environment impact assessments, ostensibly to ease the way for the industries to set up their shops to the detriment of the environment.

The new draft notification expands the list of projects that are exempted from public scrutiny like the work related to the modernization of irrigation projects, plant constructions, mining activities, inland waterways, widening of national highways etc. This list also includes projects that deal with laying pipelines and the offshore projects within 12 nautical miles.

The draft EIA relaxes the stringency in public consultation by reducing it to 20 days from the current 30-days’ time period and also the post-environment clearance monitoring system.

Further, the new notification deviates much from the older one by extending the time allotted for compliance report submission. The promoter is now free to take a year to submit the report - a climb down from the previously stipulated six-month period.

Government Considers EIA a Hindrance

The draft notification neutralises whatever hard-won gains made through earlier National Green Tribunal (NGT) rulings or various court orders.

The current EIA notification is part of a long drawn out plan, consistently followed by the government all these years, to weaken the environmental regulatory regime that includes instances of diluting environmental laws to ease the running of industrial activities.

The final body blow was the changes made in the process of the appointments to NGT that has weakened the country’s sole environmental watchdog.

The current attempt to weaken the EIA regime is suggestive of the fact that the government considers it as a hindrance, rather than as a guarantee for environmental sustainability.

EIA is a part of corrective mechanisms that become crucial in the background of the challenges raised by global warming, pollution and habitat losses. Viewed in conjunction with the recent declarations of much touted labor reforms and liberalised norms for investment, one can see that the current attempt to dilute EIA as a part of deep-rooted strategy despite the rhetoric on environmental protection.

India registers a steady decline on the Environment Performance Index. It now stands 177 out of 180 countries, and in 2016, India was placed at 141th position on the same index.

The EIA protocol is our last defense against the over-exploitation of our natural environment. And, it is high time that the prime minister's own expressed vision of 'green development model' became the guiding principle for future economic activities. In the longer term, our growth measured in terms of GDP makes no sense if it ends up in the irretrievable depletion of natural capital.

(Prof. C.P. Rajendran is a professor of geodynamics in Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru. He writes science-related articles and on policy matters. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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