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The draft EIA notification, 2020: what went wrong?

India has witnessed consistent and rapid environmental degradation since the past 50 years which can be attributed to the depletion of forests, vehicular emissions, use of hazardous chemicals, improper disposal methods and various other undesirable human activities.  Incidents such as the Bhopal gas tragedy and the LG Polymers gas leak incident have accentuated the seriousness of the matter and the need for introspection and rectification as well as timely action. Implementation of regulatory norms to curb pollution may seem plausible, but it is even more crucial to check whether industrial units and other polluting entities are complying with the safety norms and standards laid down to check the adverse impact of their operations. In that light, The draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification is bound to suffer implementational challenges and demands thorough revision to meet the environmental, developmental and sustainability parameters.

 

Concatenation of EIA in India

The current environmental laws seek to strike a balance between ‘ecology’ and ‘economy.’ The EIA framework is the practical aspect that guides towards striking this balance. Environmental Clearance (EC) is one of the most important features of an EIA framework. It refers to the process of assessing the impact of planned projects on the environment and people with an aim to abate/minimize the consequent environmental pollution. The clearance is mandatory of areas that are ecologically fragile, regardless of the type of project. 

The first EIA notification was notified in the year 1994, however, it covered only a few industries, leaving many out of the scope of impact assessment. In order to reflect upon the shortcomings of the 1994 framework, it was updated as EIA notification 2006[1].

However, the system curated by the EIA notification 2006 has been a far cry from perfect. Over the 15 odd years of its implementation, there have been quality issues with respect to the EIA reports,[2] and poor track record of post environmental clearance monitoring and compliance[3]. Over these years, it has also undergone numerous changes. In 2017, the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Environment Ministry exempted public hearings for coal mining projects which were undergoing capacity enhancements of up to 40 percent. However, the relaxation was subjected to due diligence of the EAC[4]. In 2015, the Ministry extended the validity of environmental clearance from 5 years to 7 years[5]. In March 2020, a draft notification[6] to replace the 2006 notification was issued for public comments. Since then, there have been many protests seeking a revaluation of the draft proposal.

In the meanwhile, vide an Office Memorandum dated 18th November 2020, the government proposed new set of rules to streamline the process to reduce the number of days taken by the authorities in granting EC.[7] This was in line with the government’s efforts to ensure the country’s growth trajectory in not blocked. Post that, another Office Memorandum was issued on 15th March 2021 that sought to streamline the process of granting environmental clearances with regard to essential details demanded.[8]

Very recently, another Notification dated 18th March 2021 was issued where the center exempted all projects from public hearing whose environmental clearance had expired and therefore had to apply afresh.[9]According to the notification, the prior environmental clearance for a project was granted for a maximum period of ten years, and in some cases five years. The projects which failed to complete within the granted time period had to undergo all the processes of scoping afresh, including conducting a public hearing. However, as per the new amendment, the compulsory step of conducting public hearing has been done away with if minimum 50% of the physical form of the project has been implemented. This was essential to remit further delay in such projects.

The notification has been introduced amidst the countrywide opposition to the contentious EIA Draft Notification 2020[10], that seeks to overhaul the environmental clearance process for large infrastructures and projects like dams, roads, mines townships, etc. The prepared draft proposes three major changes:

  1. Exemption from public consultation for certain construction projects.
  2. Powers to regularise projects retrospectively.
  3. Exemptions for process with strategic consultation.[11]

 

Contentious Issues in the Draft EIA Notification

Environmentalists across the country took an abhorrent view of the proposed Draft EIA Notification 2020, since it provided time and liberty to project proponents while strategically keeping the public uninvolved.

  1. Ex post facto environmental clearance

This rule allows any industry working in violation of the Environment (Protection) Act to apply for clearance. This seemed quite arbitrary since India has already witnessed severe disasters caused due to the lack of compliance to environmental clearances. Recently, in addition to the LG Polymers gas leakage at Vishakhapatnam, a natural gas well of Oil India Ltd. blew up and caught fire in Tinsukia, Assam.  Assam’s State Pollution Board reported that Oil India Ltd. was operating without any consent from the Board for more than 15 years!

  1. Defeats the purpose of public consultation

Generally, the interested stakeholders are given a period of 30 days to raise any concerns regarding the preliminary report of the assessment. The draft EIA 2020 seeks to reduce this period to a mere 20 days. Very often, the concerned stakeholders belong to poor communities residing in and around the project sites. The news of such a report usually reaches late, by the time consultations are considered, clearances are granted. This provision is in violation of Principle 10 of Rio Declaration which states that “Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens”.

  1. Reducing the Number of Compliance Reports

The Compliance Report contains all the norms and regulations which are being followed by industries on a regular basis. It is an essential aspect of EIA since it helps the concerned authorities to put a system of checks and balance. However, as per the draft EIA 2020, this period has been increased to one year, granting unwarranted freedom to industrial units to grossly violate the environmental norms and cover it up with ease.

  1. Empowering the central govt. to declare certain projects as ‘strategic’ may have adverse outcomes

It is the Technical Expert Committee that has been endorsed with the power to categorize new projects rather than the Ministry of Environment, Climate and Forest Change. Once a particular project has been labelled/categorised as ‘strategic’ by the central government, information regarding it shall be removed from the public domain. Any information regarding environmental violations thus remain a privy to the government. Not being able to report violations except by the government or regulatory authority goes against the principles of natural justice. Diluting the norms with regards to detailed scrutiny by the Expert Committee, EIA studies, or public consultation leaves many projects and polluters out of the regulatory net.

  1. Exclusion of projects

Clause 26 of the Draft EIA Notification 2020 excludes a long list of projects from the purview of EIA. Further, Clause 14 of the said Notification excludes a number of projects from public consultation. Further, public consultation has also been exempted for the projects falling under Category B2.

 

Judicial Approach on the Draft EIA Notification

Since the issuance of the draft notification, various petitions have been filed in courts across the country demanding judicial scrutiny over specific controversial aspects as discussed above.

The notification allowing for grant of ex post facto environmental clearance for project proponents who have already commenced or completed projects without obtaining a prior EC was challenged in the case of Alembic Pharmaceuticals Ltd. v. Rohit Prajapati & Ors.[12], the Supreme Court held that the concept of ex post facto clearance as opposed to the fundamental principles of environmental jurisprudence and is violative of the previous EIA Notifications. It was further held in this case that such a clearance would lead to irreparable degradation of the environment. The grant of such problematic environmental clearances violates the precautionary principle and sustainable development. Furthermore, such clearances overturn the ‘polluter pays principle’ to make it ‘pay and pollute’ principle.

The court placed reliance on its previous ruling in the matter of Common Cause v. Union of India.[13] In this case, the Supreme Court held that “the concept of an ex post facto or a retrospective EC is completely alien to environmental jurisprudence including EIA 1994 and EIA 2006.” Therefore, relying on the verdict of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the above two cases, it can be stated that ex post facto clearances are unsustainable is law and void.

In the case of Puducherry Environment Protection Association v. The Union of India.[14], the Madras HC addressed the issue in a different light. The question of whether an establishment providing livelihood to hundreds of people must be closed down on the grounds of non-compliance with prior EC, was addressed. After much deliberation, the HC arrived at the conclusion that violation of environmental norms can conveniently and effectively be checked. It also stressed on the fact that an ex post facto clearance takes away the scope of EIA.

Previously, the National Green Tribunal in S. P. Muthuraman v. Union of India[15], remarked that the law does not recognise any such examination which is made post-commencement and upon completion of a project. The Tribunal further went to acknowledge that the practice of conducting an EIA is internationally recognised. It also stated that granting post facto approvals could legalise and legitimise illegal and irregular projects which are in contravention of environmental norms and thus would defeat the purpose of the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

Another contention raised by the stakeholders was that the draft notification dilutes the EIA process making it easier for industries to escape accountability. Various courts also took stock of these concerns and the Delhi High Court granted an extension in the time allowed to the general public for giving suggestions to the Draft EIA Notification till August 11, 2020. It also suggested that the notification must be translated into other languages so that it can reach to even the remotest groups and seek recommendations.[16] However, the centre responded by saying that it was giving ‘thoughtful consideration’ to the HC’s views on translating the EIA Notification 2020 in twenty-two languages of the eighth schedule of the constitution.[17]The Karnataka High Court also took a similar approach and restrained the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change from releasing the final notification till September 7, 2020, on the grounds of the ongoing pandemic.[18]

 

Giving Voice to the Voiceless

EIA is a part of participatory justice which gives voice to the voiceless[19].

The present EIA draft notification appears to be an attempt to promote the growth of industries and the corporate community at the cost of biodiversity, human rights and the environment. The draft is bound to suffer implementational challenges and demands thorough revision to meet the environmental, developmental and sustainability parameters. However, the final notification is not out yet and the judicial bent towards scrapping the post-commencement sanctions and increasing the period for public consultation period would most likely lead to a revision of those aspects. Moreover, provisions such as discretionary powers for the determination of strategic projects as well as a reduction in key compliance norms dilute the very essence of environmental assessments. Ease of doing business was ideally implemented to subvert bureaucratic dawdle but it should not become a veil for corporate subterfuge. Then again, too many compliance burdens deter participants in a sector from undertaking developmental projects. Some fine-tuning keeping the regulatory pressures minimal while balancing environmental repercussions would be the ideal course of action.

References 

1 GOVERNMENT OF INDIA – THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ASSESSMENT NOTIFICATION 2006,
http://www.environmentwb.gov.in/pdf/EIA%20Notification,%202006.pdf (last visited Aug. 29, 2020).

2 http://moef.gov.in/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/OM_IA_ownershipEIA.pdf

3 https://cag.gov.in/en/audit-report/details/27540

4 http://environmentclearance.nic.in/writereaddata/Form1A/Minutes/010820176ABWO9WXApprovedMOM15thEACheldon25July2017Coal.pdf

5 https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/policy/government-extends-validity-of-environmentclearance-to-7-years/articleshow/49452693.cms?from=mdr


6 http://parivesh.nic.in/writereaddata/Draft_EIA_2020.pdf


7 http://dghindia.gov.in/assets/downloads/5fbb4c3cc3135moefccom.pdf

8 https://ficci-web.com/link/OMStreamlining.pdf


9 http://environmentclearance.nic.in/writereaddata/EIA_Notifications/52_SO1240E_12032021.pdf


10 http://parivesh.nic.in/writereaddata/Draft_EIA_2020.pdf

11 https://www.bloombergquint.com/law-and-policy/environment-law-proposed-norms-dilute-the-processrigours-experts-say

12 Alembic Pharmaceuticals Ltd. v. Rohit Prajapati & Ors., 2020 SCC OnLine SC 347

13 Common Cause v. Union of India, (2017) 9 SCC 499.


14 Puducherry Environment Protection Association v. The Union of India, (2017) 8 MLJ 513.


15 S.P. Muthuraman v. Union of India, 2018 (8) FLT 498.


16 Vikrant Tongad v. Union of India, W.P. (C) 3747/2020 & CM APPL. 13426/2020.


17 https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2021/mar/26/giving-thoughtful-considerationto-hc-view-totranslate-draft-eia-in-22-languages-centre-2281924.html

18 United Conservation Movement Charitable and Welfare Trust v. Union of India, W.P. No. 8632/2020.


19 Samarth Trust and Anr. v. Union of India and Ors., Writ Petition (Civil) No 9317 of 2009

 

 

Image Credits: Photo by Alan Rodriguez on Unsplash

The present EIA draft notification appears to be an attempt to promote the growth of industries and corporate community at the cost of biodiversity, human rights and environment. The draft is bound to suffer implementational challenges and demands thorough revision to meet the environmental, developmental and sustainability parameters. However, the final notification is not out yet and the judicial bent towards scrapping the post commencement sanctions and increasing the period for public consultation period would most likely lead to revision of those aspects

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