Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020: Pro-Industry, Anti-People?

Here is a page for all you wanted to know about the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and the central government’s draft notification that has so many up in arms. You have till the 11th of August to understand. And, if you want to, express your views.

You can listen to this story here:

What is the EIA?

Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) can be defined, simply, as the study made to predict the effect of a proposed activity or project on the environment. Often used as a decision making tool while granting environmental clearance to any project, EIA compares various alternatives for a project and seeks to identify which one represents the best combination of economic and environmental costs and benefits. 

For example, if a company wants to build a dam on a particular river, the EIA would consider how the building of the dam would affect the environment, including the people living in the area and closeby:

- Perhaps it would think of the trees that need to be cut in order to build this dam and/or 

- the impact of building this dam on the lives, land and livelihood of people living upstream and downstream from it. 

A key part of this process is public hearings, where the views of those who are likely to be affected by any given project are taken into consideration. 

While, on paper, this process sounds just and systematic, in practice it has, sadly, left much to be desired. Often, projects are sanctioned without due process being followed. Public hearings are manipulated, for instance, by the company concerned sending its own people, who pretend to be local representatives, or even by threatening locals into not voicing their concerns. In order to understand why this happens with alarming regularity, it is perhaps useful to understand the background of the EIA.  The History of the EIA The EIA is considered to be a global symbol of neoliberal environmental regulation, having its origins tied to a period of the USA’s economic liberalisation which began during the 1970s, and which led to environmental problems accompanying this period of high growth, leading to the birth of the EIA process as a global sustainability tool. In India, while the EIA was formally adopted in 1994, it has mostly acted, in effect, as a rubber stamp to legalise the granting of clearances to corporate and government takeover of lands for development projects.  

Even so, the regulatory framework that has been put in place to protect vulnerable populations and the environment, has for long been a thorn in the side of big business and industry, whose representatives claim that having to follow the process deters investment. However, the flouting of this process has massive repercussions for the environment as well as the lives of many people. 

Take for instance, two recent incidents. After the Baghjan Oil Well Disaster, it was revealed that the project had been set up without holding mandatory public hearings. Similarly, the manufacturing unit in Visakhapatnam from where deadly gas leaked in May this year, killing and poisoning people, was set up without proper environmental clearances being obtained The Government Wants to Amend the EIA. Why Is This a Problem? In these circumstances, one would imagine, the government would want to strengthen the regulatory procedures in order to ensure the proper implementation of the EIA process. Instead, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC or simply ‘the Environment Ministry’) in March, 2020 released a draft notification to amend the EIA process that will further dilute the regulatory mechanisms that have been put in place to minimize damage to the environment, natural habitat, and people who inhabit areas where large industrial projects come up. Here are some of the key concerns with the draft:

  1. 1. Firstly, the draft notification reduces the notification period from 30 days to 20 days before public consultations take place, thereby making it very difficult for ordinary people to go through voluminous, technical EIA reports of projects and make a thorough assessment about how any given project might impact their lives and environment. 

  2. Second, the draft notification exempts many projects from requiring any public consultations for approval at all. For instance, the new draft EIA notification allows the central government to categorise any project it wishes as having “strategic considerations” and therefore exclude it from the process of public hearing for getting environmental clearance. The draft notification also exempts projects such as those related to the “modernisation of irrigation”, “offshore projects located beyond the 12 nautical miles” and even “linear projects” (linear projects refer to those projects undertaken by the construction industry which are linear in nature, or extend along a straight line, for eg. roads, highways, pipelines, tunnels etc.) undertaken in border areas, which the notification defines as those areas that fall within 100 km aerial distance from the Line of Actual Control with countries bordering India. This definition of a “border area” would technically include vast portions of India’s North-East region - which are significant for reasons of environment, biodiversity and ethnicity - thereby giving the government absolute powers to carry out any development project without any public consultation in such areas.  

  3. Third, the current draft notification reduces the frequency of submission of EIA compliance reports to the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) and Environment Ministry from twice a year to once a year. This is especially problematic given that a CAG audit in 2016 had found that roughly 43% to 78% of the projects sampled under the audit, across 10 regional offices, had failed to submit compliance reports on time.  

  4. Fourth, the draft notification institutionalises the process of obtaining environment clearances after the project has commenced. This shall lead to industries going ahead with projects without an environmental clearance, with environmental clearance being relegated to the stature of an afterthought. Let us return to the example of the recent gas leakage which took place at the LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam. The company in question was operating without environmental approvals for over two decades. If post facto clearances are institutionalised then projects such as this can continue to function without any checks and balances in the assurance that permissions can be obtained later. Further, this method of granting post facto clearances also circumvents a recent Supreme Court judgment by Justice DY Chandrachud in which the court had observed that post facto clearances go against established theories of Environmental Law.

What Can You Do? If you would like to voice your opinion on the amendments recommended in the Environment Ministry’s draft notification, then read about the various courses of action available to you below.  Letters

The Delhi High Court has granted an extended time period of upto 11th August, 2020 for citizens to send in their responses and suggestions with regard to the current draft to the Environment Ministry. 

- You can write in with your responses and suggestions to the MoEFCC at eia2020-moefcc@gov.in before August 11, 2020. 

- Alternatively, you can send an email to The Secretary, MoEFCC, Government of India on secy-moef@nic.in with the same. 

Sample Letters Various organisations - from activist and environmental organisations to student unions and societies to think tanks - have drafted and written letters to the Environment Ministry requesting them to withdraw the draft EIA notification. Here are some. These may help in putting together your thoughts for what you want to write. Some of them are ready drafts of letters which, if you wish, you can just copy, fill in your own details, and email to the Ministry. 

- Sample Letter to the Environment Ministry on Draft EIA Notification 2020 from Let me Breathe

- A letter to the Environment Ministry from The Centre for Policy Research.

- An open letter to the Environment Minister from various student bodies

Petitions Here are online petitions against the draft EIA notification: - Withdraw EIA Notification 2020. Aiming for 70,000 signatures.

- Scrap the Draft EIA notification 2020. Aiming for 20,000 signatures. 

- Immediately withdraw the Draft EIA notification 2020. Aiming for 15,000 signatures. Does the Opposition to the EIA Amendments Indicate a Growing Citizens’ Movement? Due to the pandemic and the consequent lockdown, concerned citizens and interest groups haven’t been able to mobilise on ground. But they have registered their opposition to the proposed amendments through other means. Here are reports that indicate a growing citizens’ movement against the draft EIA notification:  

  1. Over 60 former bureaucrats have written a letter to the Prime Minister and the Environment Minister, through which they’ve urged the government to withdraw the draft notification and to replace it with a more “people and habitat friendly” EIA policy.

  2. As has already been cited above, various prominent student unions from across the country have written an open letter to the Environment Minister to put the draft EIA notification on hold and to rewrite it as per expert recommendations.

  3. The National Fishworkers Forum has criticised the notification for being “unconstitutional”, and for rewarding violators and diluting the power of regulatory authorities. The NFF has written a memorandum to the Environment Minister stating that the proposed amendments in the EIA draft notification are devoid of any scientific basis and have been developed without any comprehensive impact assessment. 

  4. The central government has censored the websites of three environmental advocacy groups - Fridays for Future India, Let India Breathe and There is No Earth B - who had pointed to the issues with the draft EIA notification and spread awareness amongst citizens, asking them to reach out to the government and raise their concerns.

  5. Various organisations, like the Aarey Conservation Group, Himdhara, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, MUSE and the National Alliance of People’s Movements have been raising awareness amongst citizens regarding the draft EIA notification through the #WithdrawEIA2020 hashtag on Twitter. Using this hashtag, groups as well as individuals have been posting tweets, as well as circulating memes and videos on social media, to spread awareness about the issues with the draft notification. The hashtag was followed by a series called ‘Voices of India’ where citizens from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and other parts of India spoke about why they want the draft notification to be withdrawn. 

Additional Resources and Further Reading and Watching on the Proposed EIA Amendments Here are more resources of various kinds on the proposed EIA Amendments. 

  1. In case you missed our link to it above, the draft EIA notification itself.

  2. What does the process of obtaining environmental clearance look like exactly? Thermal Watch provides you with the details here

  3. The Vindhyan Ecology & Natural History Foundation’s submission to the Environment Ministry comprises a detailed near 30 page report on the issues with the EIA Amendments, broken into chapters. 

  4. If you’re looking for something easier, Feminism In India has explained why the draft EIA notification must be withdrawn through a series of posters.

  5. Sanctuary Nature Foundation explains the issues with this notification, and what you can do, in a simple question and answer format.  

  6. Dhruv Rathee’s explainer video on the draft EIA notification 2020:

7. Let India Breathe’s explainer video on the draft EIA notification 2020:

8. Another video explainer on draft EIA notification 2020:

9. A video explainer that puts things to you as simply as possible, with sketches and animation:

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