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Govt of India seeking to reduce transparency, slash accountability, 'dismantle' regulations

By Our Representative

Scholars and activists speaking at a high-profile webinar on the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2020, have expressed concern that, while India has seen a consistent hike in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking from 142nd (2014) to 63rd position in 2019, during the same time period, saw “successive downturn” in the rank from 155th (2014) to 168th (2019) position on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI).
Organized by the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, the TERI School of Advanced Studies (TERI SAS), New Delhi, and the India Water Portal as media partner, speakers at the virtual meet said, ranking at the Global Climate Risk Index 2020 also suggests, India is the fifth most vulnerable country as far as climate change is concerned.
Dr D Raghunandan, former president, All India People’s Science Network, said that the notification seeks to bypass the rulings of judicial bodies in a de jure manner, adding, the draft has gone in for a wholesale reclassification of projects as A, B1 and B2 where large numbers of projects have been placed under B2 category under which no approval or public hearing is required.
According to Dr Raghunandan, post facto clearance is the most egregious provision of the draft EIA 2020, and it goes against the rulings of Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal. The draft marks a big shift to centralised environmental process where even the State Impact Assessment Authority is constituted by the Centre. This has reduced transparency and slashed accountability, dismantling environment regulations.
Sucharita Sen, professor, Centre for the study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, said that the draft EIA 2020 has made significant dent in the social contract made by the state with its citizens to protect their lives and livelihood, adding, it also violates the Environmental Protection Act, 1986 which pledges to protect and improve the environment.”
Pointing out that the days of public hearing have been reduced from 30 to 20 days, Prof Sen regretted, this suggests the draft doesn’t empower citizens to file violations and non-compliance reports, and this watering down has happened when 99.9 percent of violation cases are brought to authorities by citizens and action groups, she added.
Also objecting to post facto approvals of environmental clearance, she said, this provision pre-empts the possibility of rejection and enhances the industry’s right to pay for violations and get away with whatever it does.
Leo Saldanha, founding trustee and coordinator, Environment Support Group, Bangalore, said that till 1997, public hearing was not mandatory and environmental approvals were based at the discretion of administration. However, the 1997 EIA notification marked the beginning of democratization of environmental clearances.
Ashish Kothari, founder-member, Kalpavriksh, Pune, said that environmental regulatory regime in India has always been very weak, and environment has been considered nominal when compared to the notion of development. We have to challenge the notion of development at any cost. It is necessary to rethink about development, progress or wellbeing in the ambit of environmental ecosystem and we need to relearn from indigenous people to respect the environment, he added.
Dr Walter Fernandes, director, North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati, said that the draft paves the way for centralisation of power by “streamlining” the people who are the real stakeholders of the environment by refusing to given a chance to participate and report their concerns, insisting , a weak EIA demands massive mobilisation of people against the draft.
Others who participated in the webinar included Prof Kamna Sachdeva, head of the department and associate professor, Department of Energy and Environment, TERI; Madhu Sarin, environmentalist and land rights activist, Campaign for Survival and Dignity; Ajit Kumar Singh, additional district and sessions judge, Bihar; Brajesh Kumar Dubey, associate professor, Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur; Sara Suresh, student of the Symbiosis Law School, Pune; and Dr Arjun Kumar, director, IMPRI.

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