‘Lax environmental norms during recession could lead to industries bypassing environmental safeguards’
Inland waterways, hydroelectric projects up to 25 megawatts, small irrigation projects, some industrial parks or housing projects will only require an “environment permission” from authorities to begin construction under the new draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2020. These projects’ environmental impacts will not be assessed in detail because they are believed to have a small environmental footprint, according to reviews of the draft by several researchers.
On March 23, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) had issued draft EIA notification 2020, which is expected to bring major changes in the way infrastructure projects such as industries, mines, large townships are granted environmental clearance and regulated. The EIA notification 2020, which will replace the EIA notification 2006, has been in the eye of a storm, as environmental groups and political leaders have been calling for debate and clarity on what these changes mean for the country’s fragile ecosystem.
Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon, both of whom specialise in infrastructure, ecology, and resource politics at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, have reviewed the new draft recently and shared their thoughts with HT. Edited excerpts from the interview:
Is the draft EIA 2020 significantly different from EIA notification 2006? What do you make of this new draft?
At first glance, it seems that the draft EIA 2020 is not very different from the EIA notification 2006. It appears that EIA 2020 only collates all the amendments, executive clarifications, and the court directions that were already in effect between 2006 and now. This draft puts it all together into one document.
What makes this draft so unique is that this is the government’s thinking when our economy is crashing like never before because of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic. This draft creates a complacency that may be dangerous. It makes one feel like this is familiar and that things just got a bit worse. But that is the farthest thing from truth because all the assumptions that the EIA system is based on are under scrutiny now. We may not have too many major projects coming up due to recession. If projects do come up they may not have funds or may not want to invest in environmental safeguards and they may want resources handed to them cheaply so they can reap profits even during a recession. If this is a possibility we are looking at, should we not be thinking carefully before we put this EIA mechanism in place?
The draft EIA 2020 has been notified at a time when there is a massive economic slowdown due to Covid-19. If notified, will EIA 2020 boost economic growth by simplifying processes for industries and infrastructure?
Environmental approvals cannot boost the economy. Successive governments have propagated this myth by calling environmental approval procedures a hurdle. The ministry has made the frequency of approvals and ease of securing them as its target objective based on this misplaced logic. It keeps recirculating this false narrative of environment vs. development. Speedy approvals may, at best, help to secure investments from the market and finances from banks in the short term. At worst, if approvals are given to wrong projects, they can bring entire sectors, if not the whole economy crashing. We have examples of this in the 2014 Coalgate scandal and the Hydel-gate of the dams in the north-east. The real estate sector is also a good case in point.
What does the draft EIA 2020 mean for India’s environment? How does it affect existing environmental standards?
The draft has brought 43 sectors within its regulatory purview but it thins down the regulatory process for them. The draft lays out a six-step process and many definitions, giving the impression that there is an elaborate process of scrutiny in place before a project is approved.
However, all this needs to be read with the range of exemptions and provisos. For instance, many projects would only require an Environmental Permission (EP) without detailed assessments or public hearings. The draft is also lenient towards expansion and “modernisation” projects that basically use more advanced technologies. For instance, all projects can enhance their capacity by 10% without any appraisals and only filing an online application. The draft proposes that the regulators take the project’s word for these aspects.
The draft sets severe limits to the quality of project appraisal, increases the validity of the approval period, gives exemptions to more sectors from the public consultation, allows lenient monitoring and compliance protocols. These are all examples of lowering the standards of environmental regulation of projects.
How does the draft EIA impact people? Does it have enough provisions for impacted communities to be heard?
Common people have always been and continue to be peripheral to the EIA notification. The public hearing process has been in the notification since 1997, and it still remains with its form and purpose immensely watered down. For example, the EIA 2006 notification had reduced the scope of public hearings. No wonder, when people came to the hearing to speak about how profoundly the project would impact their resources, they simply ticked the procedural boxes.
Yet, this public space is very important for all of us. As people, who may be affected by projects, we need information about the project, we need to know from its proponents why they think it’s a good idea to promote it and we need our views about it to be heard by all the stakeholders. This is a reasonable expectation to have in a democracy.
Public hearings are still there in the notification but it has been contained a lot by reducing the notice period from 30 to 20 days and by exempting many projects from public hearings altogether. There is a clause in the draft that says that there should be ‘no postponement of date, time, venue of a public hearing’ unless some untoward emergency situation occurs and the postponement will be done only on the recommendations of the authorities concerned.
There is a contentious provision in the draft on regularising EIA violations or projects, which have already come up without following due processes. What will be the impact of this provision? Can we expect more projects to violate?
This is one of the more significant aspects of the draft EIA 2020. The clause is a big public admission from the government that the EIA system suffers from plenty of violations and this is systemic. This acknowledgment has come due to the hard work of many people and organisations, who have pointed out project violations, documented them, and taken them to task. It seems that the government is ready to admit that development projects have operated outside the framework of the law. So, whether this problem of rampant violations should be handled through statutory law or through government regulation? In this proposal, the government is trying to deal with violations like they are remediation projects.
We are not all that confident that the government can carry through this attention it wants to give to violations because it has historically played a facilitative role to development projects in its job as an environmental regulator. It appears difficult that this same institution can restrain projects and extract from them both remediation and compensation costs.