Representational image. (Amal KS/HT PHOTO)
Representational image. (Amal KS/HT PHOTO)

Accept NEERI’s advice to rework contentious draft EIA 2020: Activists to Centre

The draft EIA 2020 which was published on March 23, 2020 has been in the eye of a storm since then because of widespread opposition to certain clauses in the draft which could weaken the process of granting environmental clearance to industries and infrastructure projects
By Jayashree Nandi
UPDATED ON JUN 24, 2021 08:48 AM IST

As many as a hundred environmental organisations and individuals wrote to Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar on Monday asking him to accept a CSIR-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) report that reviewed at least 200,000 comments received by the ministry on its draft environment impact assessment (EIA) notification 2020.

They wrote an open letter to the minister after reviewing a CSIR-NEERI (Centre’s own research agency) report which concluded that the environment ministry should re-evaluate the draft EIA 2020 based on recommendations and excerpts of past reports of its own committees, judicial bodies, Cromptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG).

“It would be prudent to reconsider and re-evaluate the recommendations and excerpts from the reports of the committees chaired by Dr SR Wate in 2018-19 and Vishwanathan Anand in 2014 etc., clause-wise collated comments/suggestions by CSIR-NEERI as received from stakeholders, and other recommendations by the judiciary bodies, CAG, etc., which should be holistically analysed and brainstormed amongst peer groups, to suitably amend, clarify, detail out, and improve the present draft EIA 2020 notification, for the larger goal of enhanced environmental protection,” the report, accessed initially accessed by research and media company, The Morning Context under RTI, said. It was then analysed by various environmental groups.

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The draft EIA 2020, published on March 23, 2020, has been in the eye of a storm since then because of the widespread opposition to certain clauses in the draft which could weaken the process of granting environmental clearance to industries and infrastructure projects. The Delhi Police had sent a notice on July 8 to youth climate group Fridays for Future under sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for sending multiple emails to Javadekar against the draft EIA 2020. Delhi Police had later clarified that sending the notice was a clerical error. The ministry had tasked NEERI in August to tabulate and review the objections and suggestions received on the draft EIA 2020 notification.

The CSIR-NEERI report states that the ministry has received a total of 2,042,157 online and offline comments on the draft. NEERI tabulated the comments and detected emails with similar bodies. Mails sent in regional languages were translated to English. During the analysis, it was observed that most emails were repetitive and a major part of was clubbed into 62 distinct email bodies and primarily driven by online social media campaigns, the report said. The report found that most objections were against categorisation of projects and activities; preparation of EIA reports; exemption from public consultation; post-facto approval of projects or regularising projects that have violated norms among others.

The letter sent to Javadekar by academics, architects, youth climate campaigns etc says the ministry should get the recommendations in those over 200,000 responses evaluated by an independent committee given the extent and depths of the comments. “Further, given that a large number of comments present objections to the draft which has been prepared by the ministry, it is desirable that the comments be examined by a group that is substantially different from the ministry, is independent and at an arm’s length from the ministry,” the letter reads.

More importantly, the letter says the ministry should “stop backdoor implementation of draft EIA 2020”. Since the time the draft EIA 2020 has been put out, MoEFCC has from been bringing out amendments to the EIA notification 2006, that are very similar to provisions in the draft EIA 2020, signatories said.

For example, an amendment to the EIA notification 2006 dated March 18 enables projects to bypass public hearing where construction and commissioning of proposed activities have not been completed within the validity period of the Environmental Clearance (EC).

The environment ministry recently allowed companies operating in several industries, including some polluting ones, to expand capacities on the basis of a self-certification that this will not “increase the pollution load”, creating room for potential misdeclaration and misuse. There are many more such changes introduced in the past year, experts said.

RP Gupta, secretary, MoEFCC did not respond to HT’s calls and email query on whether the CSIR report has been accepted.

“Changes have been introduced to the environment clearance process on a monthly basis. This is either through clarificatory orders or amendments without seeking public comments. The opposition to the draft EIA 2020 has been responded to by keeping its finalisation on hold and introducing sector-specific relaxations... The environment ministry had committed to ‘utmost good faith’ and post-facto approvals in favour of project proponents when the TSR Subramanian committee’s recommendations were finalised in 2014. New exemptions from the environment clearance process and lenient treatment of violators are also an outcome of this commitment,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research. “Since the 1990s, the EIA notification was never designed to stop project approvals. Its enforcement required the application of science and democratic procedures like public hearings to arrive at environmentally viable and socially legitimate decisions. This is an ask, that the environment ministry has always been politically resistant to deliver. What we see with the draft EIA 2020 is perhaps the worst manifestation of this resistance,” she added.

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