Since 1994, the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification has put into place an environment clearance process for a range of development and industrial projects listed in its schedule. This process requires, amongst other things, the preparation of an EIA report and public consultation. This process has, over the years, been reduced to administrative formalities, to say the least. The hurried pace of clearances, shoddy EIAs, rigged public consultation and appraisal procedures have been facilitated by unabated dilutions of the law itself.
If the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has its way again, then any industry seeking to modernise or expand its operations can self-certify that its plans will not lead to an increase in the pollution load, and escape the regulatory net. This is one of the most critical amendments proposed on January 19, 2009, to an already butchered environment clearance framework. This self-certification option ignores a persistent problem: that of ensuring projects’ compliance with environmental clearance conditions. There are many examples of industrial units being allowed to expand despite a poor environmental record, even with existing levels of the MoEF’s monitoring. So this new and complete exemption will be the highest form of legally sanctioned environmental injustice.
Activities like dredging and dumping of material within port limits are to be exempted from public consultations. Such activities affect coastal and marine ecosystems and livelihoods in irreversible ways. This exemption is a continuation of the withholding of critical environmental information. Over the years, the Ministry’s response has, in a myriad ways, ridiculed and limited the scope of the public hearing through a series of exemptions and dilutions. This proposed amendment is no exception.
Industrial areas below 500 hectares which do not host the activities identified in the notification schedule are proposed to be exempted. A change in land use of 500 hectares, due to any activity, anywhere, will result in a host of environmental and social impacts — access will be curtailed, livelihoods will be lost and existing forms of biodiversity will have to make way for the change. We may lose farms, beaches, forest, wetlands, pastures or just open spaces.
Real estate development projects continue to have it easy. The 2006 notification had exempted them from almost the entire regulatory process. Now, the proposed amendments have widened the scope of exemptions to them, based on size. Projects less than 50,000 square metres or with a built-up area of less than 100 hectares will not need to procure a clearance after assessing environmental impacts. Keeping such land use change proposals out of the regulatory framework means that we don’t even want to know what we might lose or what impact such changes might have. It does not, as the Ministry would like us to think, mean that these changes in land use are without any impact. This proposal reflects the basic rot in the MoEF’s ways of thinking, where impacts are assessed only through the use of environmental expertise based on pollution standards.
Another proposal seeks to dispense with the stages of scoping and drafting of the terms of reference for the EIA reports of ‘B’ category projects for a period of three years. This is to ensure that projects aren’t held up due to the administrative workload of the bureaucracy. Speedy clearances, which were the order of the 2006 amendments, continue to rule.
Interestingly, discussions between the PMO (holding charge of the MoEF) and the Ministry have been on since 2007. Despite the Right to Information Act, which requires all policy formulation to involve the people, this draft notification was posted on the Ministry’s website only at the fag end, when any suggestions for fundamental change will not be entertained.
(Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon are members of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group)