Draft EIA Notification 2020 Controversy

Context:

Student unions from several universities and colleges from across India have petitioned Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar to put the draft of the proposed Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020 on hold.

History of EIA legislation in India

As a signatory to the Stockholm Declaration (1972) on Environment, India enacted laws to control water (1974) and air (1981) pollution soon after. But it was only after the Bhopal gas leak disaster in 1984 that the country legislated an umbrella Act for environmental protection in 1986.

Under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, India notified its first EIA norms in 1994, setting in place a legal framework for regulating activities that access, utilise, and affect (pollute) natural resources. Every development project has been required to go through the EIA process for obtaining prior environmental clearance ever since.

The 1994 EIA notification was replaced with a modified draft in 2006. Earlier this year, the government redrafted it again to incorporate the amendments and relevant court orders issued since 2006, and to make the EIA “process more transparent and expedient.”

Issues with the new Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020

The government has put up for public consideration and comment the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020, which if put into force will replace the EIA Notification of 2006 for all future projects.

The key points of dispute with the proposed draft are that:

  • The 2020 draft offers no remedy for the political and bureaucratic stronghold on the EIA process, and thereby on industries. Instead, it proposes to bolster the government’s discretionary power while limiting public engagement in safeguarding the environment.
  • It shortens the period of public consultation hearings to a maximum of 40 days.
  • It reduces from 30 to 20 days the time provided for the public to submit their responses during a public hearing for any application seeking environmental clearance.
  • It also allows the declaration of some areas as “economically sensitive areas” without a public hearing or environmental clearance, and several “red” and “orange”-classified toxic industries could now operate as close as 0-5 km from a Protected Area in “callous disregard” for forests.
  • The increased validity of the environment clearances for mining projects (50 years versus 30 years currently) and river valley projects (15 years versus 10 years currently) raises the risk of irreversible environmental, social and health consequences on account of the project remaining unnoticed for long.
  • The creation of an ex-post-facto clearance route — where an EIA clearance was never sought or granted, and the construction of the project took place regardless, the project proponent can enter an assessment procedure, with some minor fines for the violations. This would lead to all previous violations being written off and lead to a side stepping of judicial challenges to such encroachments.

Environment Impact Assessment (EIA)

Environment Impact Assessment in India is statutorily backed by the Environment Protection Act, 1986 which contains various provisions on EIA methodology and process.

  • EIA is an important process for evaluating the likely environmental impact of a proposed project.
  • It is a process whereby people’s views are taken into consideration for granting final approval to any developmental project or activity.
  • It is basically, a decision-making tool to decide whether the project should be approved or not.
  • The basis in global environmental law for the EIA is the “precautionary principle”. Environmental harm is often irreparable — one cannot reverse an oil spill. It is cheaper to avoid damage to the environment than to remedy it. We are legally bound to the precautionary principle under international treaties and obligations, as well as by Supreme Court judgments.
  • Since environmental regulation must balance damage to the environment with sustainable development and possible benefits of the project, an unbiased assessment must be made on a precautionary basis, before investment, jobs and infrastructure are put on the line.
  • However, industries and business interests have long regarded EIA as a thorn in their side.

The objectives of EIA are:

  • To identify, predict and evaluate the economic, environmental and social impact of development activities
  • To provide information on the environmental consequences for decision making and
  • To promote environmentally sound and sustainable development through the identification of appropriate alternatives and mitigation measures.

The EIA process

The EIA process scrutinizes the potential environmental impact and negative externalities of a proposed project before ground is broken and determines whether it can be carried out in the form proposed, or whether it is to be abandoned or modified. The assessment is carried out by an Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), which consists of scientists and project management experts. The EAC frames the scope of the EIA study and a preliminary report is prepared.

EIA process involves the following steps

  • Screening: this stage decides which projects require a full or partial assessment study.
  • Scoping: this stage decides which impacts are necessary to be assessed. This is done based on legal requirements, international conventions, expert knowledge and public engagement. This stage also finds out alternate solutions.
  • Assessment & evaluation of impacts and development of alternatives: this stage predicts and identifies the environmental impacts of the proposed project and also elaborates on the alternatives.
  • EIA Report: in this reporting stage, an environmental management plan (EMP) and also a non-technical summary of the project’s impact is prepared for the general public. This report is also called the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
  • Decision making: the decision on whether the project is to be given approval or not and if it is to be given, under what conditions.
  • Monitoring, compliance, enforcement and environmental auditing: monitoring whether the predicted impacts and the mitigation efforts happen as per the EMP.

Benefits of EIA:

Environmental assessment has many benefits, such as protection of the environment, optimum utilization of resources and saving of time and cost of the project.

  • Proposes modified designs to reduce environmental impacts
  • Identifies feasible alternatives
  • Predicts significant adverse impacts
  • Identifies mitigation measures to reduce, offset, or eliminate major impacts
  • Promoting community participation: Engages and informs potentially affected communities and individuals
  • Influences decision-making and the development of terms and conditions.
  • Properly conducted EIA also lessens conflicts by promoting community participation, informing decision-makers, and helping lay the base for environmentally sound projects.
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