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India's new draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) norms, and why they bother activists

July 01st, 2020
topic:Climate action
by:Shuriah Niazi
located in:India
tags:climate change, COVID-19, environment, India

The Indian government’s attempts to dilute environmental laws that can potentially affect millions of forest dwellers and lead to large-scale destruction of the environment have met with stiff opposition from students.

The government has proposed many changes in the way the environment impact assessment of development projects is conducted at a time the nation is battling Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions continue in many parts of the country to contain the spread of the virus.

On June 25, more than 50 student unions and youth organisations across the country demanded the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to impose a moratorium on the new Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) draft notification that was released on March 12 this year. They said the new EIA draft is "destructive" and can be devastating for the ecology and the people of the country as several controversial amendments have been proposed. The draft is a revision of the 2006 EIA notification and has attracted criticism from ecologists and youth organisation, who have said it would be catastrophic for the environment.

Weakening Environmental Protection

Students of universities and organisations of many states including Delhi, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Assam, Telangana, West Bengal, Punjab, Goa, Puducherry, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Odisha, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and others have written a letter and demanded that economic revival cannot be achieved at the cost of the environment.

The ministry had published the draft EIA notification on 23 March and sought opinions and suggestions from the public by 22 May.

But after receiving several reports expressing concern over the publication of the notification during the Covid-19 lockdown, the government extended the deadline to June 30.

The evaluation of environmental impact plays a crucial role in the economy, as there must be harmony between the environment and the development of the economic activities.

In a letter sent to the Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, students of Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU), Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Jain University, Jindal Global Law School, All India Students Federation, All India Students Association (AISA), Youth4Swaraj, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Tarang, (Tarang is Ashoka University’s students group) and other student organizations demanded that the recommendations of environmental experts be evaluated after the country is out of the Covid-19 crisis and the draft notification of EIA be redrafted so that India’s greenery could be saved from annihilation.

The student groups have asserted that the new EIA draft notification proposes to bring in contentious changes such as a post-facto grant of approval, immunity to several big industries from public hearings, permission for industries to present only one compliance report a year instead of two, increased validity of the environment clearances for mining projects and river valley projects, among others.

The letter affirms that over the last 50 years, about 50 million people in the country have been uprooted due to ill-conceived development projects and the proposed changes to the EIA aim to provide a free hand to many businesses and industries such as mining and construction and spell doom for forest dwelling tribal people, peasants and villagers.

Excluding Public opinions

Before clearance is granted to any project, there is a fair public hearing in which the government authorities and the people going to be affected by the proposed project participate. The project moves ahead only with the consent of the affected people. Observers say recently it has also been seen that despite this arrangement, the government has been able to obtain consent from the affected people by putting pressure on them during public hearings. For example, the Chutka nuclear project is planned at Mandla district in Madhya Pradesh, but there has been no consensus among people going to be affected by the project and they continue to oppose the project despite the three public hearings so far.

Critics say that in such a scenario, the government has tried to find an easy way out through the current amendments by ending the provision for public hearing so that the project may not be stalled due to the opposition by the locals. Apart from exemption from public hearing, provisions have also being made for starting the project construction work even before obtaining environmental clearance because it has been seen that many projects do not get environmental clearance for years.

20-year-old Anjali Dalmia from Ashoka University in Sonipat, Haryana, said, “In the long run the natural ecosystems would sustain the people so economic turnaround cannot be achieved by compromising the environment and society.”

Taanika Shankar and Smruthi Ananth, members of the Sustainability Committee at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, Karnataka, said, “The nation has witnessed the consequences of inadequate environmental policies.”

Mumbai’s bio-diverse Aarey forest was flattened to construct a metro shed regardless of massive protests. The student activists referred to a gas leak caused by Vizag’s LG Polymers on May 7 2020. A Joint Monitoring Committee constituted by the National Green Tribunal said that "clear cut negligence" and "gross human failure" on the part of the company- LG Polymers- was responsible for the Styrene gas leak in Visakhapatnam on May 7 that killed 12 people and injured 800 others.

The letter penned by student bodies states: “The Ministry issued a draft EIA 2020 in March 2020 under Prakash Javadekar’s leadership during the Covid-19 epidemic and urged the minister to put the draft on hold as it could prove very devastating for the ecology and people of the country.”

The comprehensive letter written by student groups says that the relaxation of laws and procedures would increase the destruction of the environment and lead to the displacement of millions of people. The young activists said people were convinced that after the epidemic, governments would understand that nature-based livelihood is the simplest path to sustainable development but just the opposite was happening as laws that protect natural resources were being diluted.

Article written by:
Shuriah Niazi
Shuriah Niazi
Author
India
The government has proposed many changes in battling Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions continue in many parts of the country to contain the spread of the virus.
Students of many universities and organisations have written a letter and demanded that economic revival cannot be achieved at the cost of the environment.
The student groups says that the relaxation of laws and procedures would increase the destruction of the environment and lead to the displacement of millions of people.