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Barking up the wrong tree

National Environment Policy seems to be interested in dealing with only those who cause pollution, and not those who suffer its effects, write Kanchi Kohli & Manju Menon.
None | By Kanchi Kohli & Manju Menon
PUBLISHED ON AUG 01, 2006 12:10 AM IST

What are the meetings and discussions held with different sectors towards the finalisation of the draft EIA (Environment Impact Assessment) notification dated September 15, 2005?

Answer: A discussion had been convened on May 22, 2006, with apex industry associations namely the CII, Assocham, Ficci and CREDAI.

Have there been any revised versions of the EIA notification circulated for comments?

Answer: A draft of the final notification has been circulated to apex industry associations and central ministries/departments for obtaining their comments/views.

This is what the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has to say in response to a Right to Information application seeking information on the status of the revision of the EIA notification.

The EIA notification is the principal regulation through which 32 categories of industries need to seek environmental clearance for the construction of a project before proceeding with the same. These projects need to have an investment of above Rs 100 crore. In September 2005, MoEF had sought feedback on a ‘re-engineered’ EIA notification to replace the current environment clearance regime, by uploading a draft on its website. This draft was largely guided by the Committee on Reforming Investment Approval and Implementation Procedures (the Govindarajan Committee) and a World Bank-funded Environment Management Capacity Building Programme. It has the explicit objective of promoting speedy clearance mechanisms to assist investors.

The mandatory 60 days’ time was given to everyone to respond to the notification that could be accessed by citizens essentially through the internet and only in English. There were responses from state governments, industry, central government ministries/departments as well as civil society organisations. Not surprisingly, there were no comments from communities or panchayats or people’s representatives, except from a handful of collectives in Tamil Nadu. But then, how could there be, when the MoEF never created any space for their participation in the process? Ironically, it is they who are the majority of the affected population when it comes to making the sacrifices and bearing the brunt of development goals that materialise through processes like the EIA notification.

A glance at the correspondence of the state governments and the construction and real estate sectors to the MoEF on this matter, point to great disagreement with the content of the draft notification. Most of the grounds for differences, of course, are based only on the self-interest of these constituencies. Civil society groups have also opposed the draft because of its potential environmental and social implications. But let us for a minute keep aside the serious differences that various sectors including state governments, real estate developers and civil society organisations have over the contents of the draft notification and confine ourselves to the process, which is clearly biased and undemocratic. In order to refine the EIA notification, MoEF only seems to find it appropriate to consult apex industry organisations and central government ministries.

Why is there a preferential treatment in organising special discussions with industry and a complete rejection of the validity of discussions with panchayats or communities affected by industrial pollution or other development related damages? If the MoEF or the Centre thinks that they are being revolutionary in only speaking to polluters and asking them about what regulatory mechanisms they want in place, it’s time to question the sham. The real fear is that our government seems to recognise only those who own property, capital or political clout as good enough to speak with. Those who are forcefully and repeatedly being made to give up their aspirations, livelihoods and lives for our GDP figures have ceased to count as citizens.

Concerns over the existing and revised EIA notification have been repeatedly pointed out to the MoEF and the PMO since 2004. This has resulted in a series of Open Letters addressing issues of critical concern such as wildlife conservation, the draft National Environmental Policy, problematic environmental clearance mechanisms, skewed representation of experts on clearance panels and the re-engineering process. Over 100 experts and environmental and social justice groups have endorsed these letters to the Secretary, MoEF.

In February-March 2006, over 2,600 postcards were sent by communities and civil society from across the country to the PMO. These primarily highlighted the total disregard for the involvement of panchayats, local bodies, civil society and communities as a whole in the drafting and finalisation of both the National Environment Policy and the Draft EIA notification. None on these efforts have received a response.

Today the situation is that the draft EIA notification is in the last stage of finalisation. A revised draft has been shared with apex industrial associations and central government ministries and departments. The people whom these policies and laws will impact have been systematically kept out of its formulation. For these people, our government’s human face is but a mask that did not even stay on long enough.

The writers are members of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group

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