The notification codifies the process to identify and evaluate the environmental effects of proposed development and industrial projects. It provides the basis of a plan to mitigate these effects. The latest draft is the third iteration of the code, first issued in 1994. Environmentalists and citizen groups, however, claim the notification dilutes the provisions of the 2006 version and undermines the parent law, the Environment Protection Act of 1986. In 2010, the environment ministry issued a directive on a pathway to make violating projects comply with the rules.
The ministry says the latest draft codifies and streamlines the 50 amendments, 230-odd office memorandums and orders of the National Green Tribunal and courts issued over 14 years. But the chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment, Jairam Ramesh, does not think so. “It is not just a codification and systematisation of all the changes. It goes much beyond that.”
A clause-by-clause analysis of the EIA shows the draft mostly does compile the changes, though some of these have been inimical to the environment. However, there are enough reasons to be concerned. Some provisions reduce the categories of projects that require environmental clearance, while others increase the threshold of exemptions.
Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar says it is “just a draft” and the ministry “will take a call on these views only then the notification will be finalised.” The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute is now compiling and analysing the 17 lakh suggestions and objections received from the public.
There has been a lot of criticism on at least two provisions — one deals with projects that violate the norms and the other limits public consultation and participation before a project is approved.
Poor monitoring, reporting and verification have led to non-adherence to environmental norms becoming a consistent problem. The parties concerned often start violating the green norms right from the construction stage. These laws are often forgotten during operations, expansion and modernisation of projects. The draft EIA lays out a process to deal with these violations. But critics say it “regularises” the violations retroactively and can encourage people to break the laws.
Ramesh, a former environment minister, says, “These laws have been around for 30 years and are not unknown. So why should there be a violation in the first place? This provision is like opening the door to not following the law, knowing that the government will regularise the project.” The draft gives violators an opportunity to get away with their actions, say some.
But Yasir Ahmad, partner-sustainability and climate change, PwC India, sees this as a welcome step. “It is a window for them to join the mainstream, with no guarantee that the appraisal process will give an outcome in their favour. This is a welcome step, while not encouraging defaulters.”
Since the notification of EIA 2006, it has become a common practice to allow a project to apply for clearance after committing a violation. The recent draft notes that such violations are recurring and these come to the notice of the authorities only after being committed. Therefore, the ministry “deems it necessary to lay down the procedure to bring such violation projects under the regulations in the interest of the environment”.
That is tantamount to the government saying the rules aren’t enforced properly, claim activists. “This is a big public admission from the government that the EIA system suffers from a great number of violations and this is systemic,” says Kanchi Kohli, environment and legal researcher at the Delhibased Centre for Policy Research.
Another major bone of contention is the limiting of public participation in project clearance. The draft has reduced the number of days set aside for public hearing from 30 to 20. For some kinds of projects, it has barred citizens from reporting violations. Only the government or the project proponent can report a violation. This is problematic because violators are often brought to the book by the efforts of people in the vicinity of the projects or by environmental groups.
It is really sad, say critics, that the ministry has missed an opportunity to address critical issues. The draft does not address climate change and biodiversity loss — among the top five risks facing the planet. There is nothing either on critical policy concerns such as resource efficiency or risks of accidents and disasters.
The EIA process needs to appreciate the importance of natural capital, says United Nations Chief Environmental Economist Pushpam Kumar. “There is a growing realisation of the contribution of nature to the economy. Environmental and economic policies must reflect this.” It is not too late to make the required changes, says Kohli.
The worry that environmental concerns are taking a back seat becomes valid because of a sense of privileging economic and development activity. The fallout of the pandemic makes economic resurgence all the more urgent. But the legal framework must move beyond the conventional approach that development will cause some environment damage, say activists.
Even industry seems to understand the need to find a balance. “India must, for its own good, find ways to develop without causing permanent environmental damage,” says Anirban Ghosh, chief sustainability officer, Mahindra Group. “Our legislation and their implementation must signal that national development and environmental rejuvenation will go hand in hand.”
It is time for us to be green while looking for green shoots.