IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis

Diluting the EIA process spells a path of no return

1st August, 2020 Environment


  • Fridays for Future India (FFF) received a notice from the Delhi police that accused it of committing offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
  • Its alleged crime: “sending too many emails” to the Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, with subjects tagged “EIA 2020”.
  • FFF has organised a sustained protest against a proposed new notification, which aims to replace the existing model of conducting environmental impact assessments (EIA) in India.
  • The wreckages of COVID-19 would have given the government a chance to reassess what its goals towards climate justice ought to be. But the responses to the crisis seem to mirror the failures of the past: the more that goes wrong, the more we want to do the same things again, as though all that we desire is a return to a pre-pandemic status quo.

Culture of disregard

  • Around the world, legislative interventions mandating EIAs began to burgeon in the late 1960s.
  • It took India, though, until 1994 before it notified its first set of assessment norms, under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
  • This policy mandated that projects beyond a certain size from certain sectors — such as mining, thermal power plants, ports, airports and atomic energy — secure an environmental clearance as a precondition to their commencement.
  • But the notification, subject as it was to regular amendments, proved a failure.

Abandoning rigour

  • The new draft attempted to decentralise the process. It increased the number of projects that required an environmental clearance, but also created appraisal committees at the level of both the Centre and States, the recommendations of which were made a qualification for a sanctioning.
  • The programme also mandated that pollution control boards hold a public hearing to glean the concerns of those living around the site of a project.
  • The final EIA report was not made available to the public; the procedure for securing clearances for certain kinds of projects was accelerated; and there was little scope available for independent judicial review.
  • When clearances were challenged, the courts treated the views of the assessment authorities as sacrosanct.
  • The new draft is riddled with problems: It enables a sweeping clearance apparatus to a number of critical projects that previously required an EIA of special rigour; where some industries require expert appraisal under the existing 2006 notification, they will, under the new notification, be subject to less demanding processes. These include aerial ropeways, metallurgical industries, and a raft of irrigation projects, among others.

Damaging fundamental tenets

  • The new proposal does nothing to strengthen the expert appraisal committees, on which so much responsibility is reposed, leaving the body rudderless.
  • It also does away with the need for public consultation for a slew of different sectors, negating perhaps a redeeming feature of the 2006 notification.
  • The proposal opens up a window for securing post-facto clearances. That is, companies, which have commenced a project without a valid certificate, will be allowed to regularise their operations by paying a fine.

Way Forward:

  • There is no doubt that a mere strengthening of the existing EIA norms will not by itself be sufficient.
  • We need a renewed vision for the country; one that sees the protection of the environment as not merely a value unto itself but as something even more foundational to our democracy.
  • We must begin to imagine a future where, as the American law professor, Jedediah S. Purdy, argues, our ecological and egalitarian projects can fuse together.
  • We have to see ourselves as not distinct from the environment that we live in, but as an intrinsic part of it. Under such a model, our economic solutions will have to necessarily subsume a commitment to our natural surroundings.
  • Wendell Berry’s words are worth recalling: “Whether we and our politicians know it or not, nature is party to all our deals and decisions,” and it “has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”