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Proposed changes in environmental law 'undemocratic, compromise jurisprudence'

Counterview Desk

The Draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020 has received serious criticisms from environmentalists, civil society activists and citizen’s groups ever since its release on March 12, 2020, even as our country was just about acknowledging the gravity of the Covid-19 crisis. Now, more than 100* movements, organizations and environmentalists have come together to write to 785 Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs seeking its immediate withdrawal.
According to the letter, emailed to India’s Parliamentarians, at a time like this when dealing with the pandemic and welfare of the people should be of utmost priority to the state and when people are unable to effectively engage with the process, the government is instead unleashing “draconian and destructive” policies and actions in order to “overhaul the environmental governance of the country and remove even the existing safeguards and protections.”
Pointing out that the draft legislation comes at a time when our country is facing the worst environmental crisis, with India ranking 179 out of 180 countries on the global Environment Performance Index for air quality in the year 2020, the letter regrets, the country’s general ranking is a dismal 168/180. Further, 14 out of 20 most polluted cities in the world are reportedly in India.
The letter states that it is not just a matter of figures, but daily news reports showcase the multiple disasters faced by the citizens of the country, either in the form of industrial disasters, accidents, building fires and collapses, floods, draught, forest fires, landslides, human-animal conflict, food and water crisis and such, that indicate the urgent need for strengthening our environment policy to address the crisis of climate change and put to a halt the environment destruction that is rapidly taking place.

Text:

We, the undersigned concerned citizens of the country and representatives of different organizations, write to you today with an appeal to step forward urgently to safeguard the interest of the environment of India, and write to the Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change asking for withdrawal of the proposed amendments to the Environment Impact Assessment notification, 1994.
While concern for the economy and its health is paramount to ensure development of the country and secure the livelihood of the people, a growth model that relies on unregulated extraction and exploitation of natural resources, especially rivers, forests, land and minerals is unsustainable and it compromises the future of our populations and the earth itself.
India’s position on the Global Environment Performance Index is amongst the worst in the world, with the country ranking second last globally at 179/180 on air quality. Excessive pollution, depleting water-tables, food contamination, climate induced natural disasters like floods and droughts, industrial disasters, urban crowding migration, human-animal conflicts, and many more issues that have been thrown-up cannot be easily mitigated and call for robust regulations.
To ensure protection of the environment our country has laws such as the Environment Protection Act, 1986 and a notification called the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) which was first put in place in 1994 and came to be superseded by the EIA Notification 2006, currently in force. The EIA is a process of evaluating the likely environmental and socio-economic impacts of a proposed project or activity.
Decision making under this process has a series of mechanisms, including participation of affected populations through the ‘public consultation’, and review by technical and scientific experts, to ascertain that the costs of projects do not outweigh the benefits. On March 12, 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MOEFCC) released the EIA 2020 Draft Notification seeking to overhaul the environment impact assessment process, just before the country went into lockdown.
100 plus movements, organizations and environmentalists write to 785 Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs seeking draft EIA notification's immediate withdrawal
Under this new notification, the MoEFCC has proposed a slew of changes in the provisions for clearance as well as compliance monitoring for projects to facilitate ‘ease of doing business'. A few of the most problematic provisions are mentioned below:
1. ALLOWS post facto approvals – i.e. allows for regularisation of project or activity which commenced without requisite environmental clearance in certain conditions (which is currently a violation), this would encourage violations and would reduce the requirement of clearance to a mere formality;
2. EXPANDS the list of projects exempted from public consultation, including modernization of irrigation projects, all building, construction and area development projects, inland waterways, expansion or widening of national highways, all projects concerning national defence and security or involving “other strategic considerations” as determined by Central Government etc.;
3. INCREASES the validity period of clearance granted to project or activity in its construction / installation phase, validity of clearances granted to mining projects increased from 30 to 50 years;
4. LACKS a post-clearance compliance and monitoring strategy. Decreasing the monitoring requirement from ‘6-month monitoring’ requirement of the projects cleared to ‘annual monitoring’, leading to further reduction in accountability.
These proposed changes are not just non-consultative, undemocratic but also compromise the doctrines of environmental jurisprudence. (See Annexure 1 for detailed ground of objections. For some of the other significant dilutions in the Draft EIA 2020 see Annexure 2.)
At a time when our country is already suffering grave environmental crisis, these proposed changes will have severe consequences on public health and safety, forest, coast and farm based livelihoods rights, and climate change. Industrial mishaps like gas leaks and fires will become more common with fewer reviews being done.
Local communities, especially farmers, fishworkers, pastoralists, forest dwellers and adivasi people, will lose livelihoods, people will migrate to cities (the effects of which were clearly seen at the start of the lockdown period!), and animals will be forced out of jungles. What we need is strengthening of the environmental policy and putting in place safeguards to protect the environment, and not their dilution by way of the Draft EIA 2020.
Over the past 2 months, hundreds of environmental and civil society groups, scientists, ecologists, students, ex-bureaucrats and experts have written in severe opposition to the draft EIA 2020 because of its detrimental effects on India, its citizens, and its natural ecosystems (Annexure 3: List of Submissions to MoEFCC).
In this context more than 50 organisations, environmentalists and ideologues have recently issued a statement highlighting the vulnerabilities of the already fragile himalayan landscape and how this new notification will spell disaster for the region (Annexure 4).
As an aware, law-abiding and influential political representative of India and a Member of Parliament, we appeal to you to take a stand against the injustice that will be unleashed by the Draft EIA Notification 2020. We urge you to write to the MoEFCC to withdraw the Draft EIA-2020 and to strengthen India’s environmental laws in consultation with the people, for preserving the ecology and natural resources of our country for the present and future generations.
We look forward to your support and quick intervention in this matter.
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*Click here for signatories

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