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Above: The Aravali hills in Gurugram/Photo: Anil Shakya

The Zero draft of the EIA notification from the environment ministry takes ease of doing business to an extreme even when the crisis of climate change is looming and gives extensive powers to district authorities

By Debi Goenka

In the midst of electioneering, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) had quietly circulated a Zero Draft of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2019. A barely readable copy of the notification running into 129 pages was sent to all states for their comments and they have been asked to respond within one month.

Given the fact that the notification is highly technical, and most government officers were busy with elections, I wonder if the ministry has timed it to ensure that they do not receive any response? The fact that the draft is partially illegible, over-written by hand in some places, and not searchable, seems to indicate that the first casualty of this process will be transparency.

It seems that the MoEF&CC has also learnt no lessons from the past—the most easily implemented laws are those that are short and simple. The best example that exists is the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. This entire Act comprises five clauses and runs into less than two pages. The original EIA notification of 1994 was 33 pages long, and the EIA notification of 2006 ran into 42 pages. The 2019 draft is definitely more complex and more difficult to understand. However, the intent is clear—it is less environmental-friendly and more aligned to serving the interests of project proponents who have little concern for the environment.

Besides the lack of transparency, the MoEF seems to have forgotten why it was created. Its sole mandate was to protect the environment and this mandate remains unchanged even today. But over the years, starting with the Vajpayee government, followed by the Manmohan Singh one and now the Modi government, all that has happened is that continual efforts have been made to dilute our environmental laws and notifications. It seems that the ease of doing business outweighs the need to protect the environment even when the crisis of climate change is impacting the lives of every living being on the planet.

It is not that the ministry is not aware of the impact of climate change. In fact, the first draft Coastal Regulation Zone notification of the MoEF issued in 1988 mentioned climate change and included a proviso that areas vulnerable to sea level rise caused by climate change should be kept free of all “development”. However, 31 years later, the ministry has completely lost the plot.

This is even more surprising given the fact that the first chief minister (CM) to include climate change in his state’s environmental agenda was Narendra Modi when he was in Gujarat. When he became prime minister in 2014, one of the first things that happened was that the Ministry of Environment & Forest (MoEF) became the MoEF&CC. Yet, despite the fact that the climate change crisis is increasing in intensity and has been universally accepted as the biggest global crisis facing mankind, the mandarins of Paryavaran Bhawan and their technical experts seem oblivious of the fact that the “business as usual” model is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. But the new model being proposed is even worse—it is business as usual with relaxations and dilutions, and of such complexity that it will keep the batteries of EIA consultants and lawyers in business for years to come.

What is particularly shocking is that this Zero Draft incorporates clauses that have already been proposed as amendments to the 2006 EIA notification that have already been stayed by various courts. For example, the MoEF&CC had, on March 15, 2016, delegated the authority to grant environmental clearances for up to five hectares of individual mining lease of minor minerals and 25 hectares in clusters to the District Environmental Impact Assessment Authority (DEIAA). This is chaired by the district collector/district magistrate and whose member secretary is the sub-divisional officer of the district. As revenue officers, both of them are directly responsible for granting these leases. By and large, none of these officers have the environmental background, the expertise or the time to scrutinise such proposals. Also, after having granted the lease, can these officers independently assess the environmental impact and cancel the leases? This decision to delegate powers to the DEIAA was challenged in the National Green Tribunal and was finally set aside.

Similarly, the powers to delegate the grant of environmental clearance of construction projects and area development projects to local planning authorities has also been challenged in the past and stayed by the courts. Yet, the same amendments find their way back in Zero Draft 2019. There is also the vexed issue of transparency. Despite numerous requests to make the draft EIA Reports available on the websites of the MoEF&CC, the State Pollution Control Boards and the Project Proponents, all that is uploaded is the summary of the EIA Report and not the entire draft EIA Report. There is no provision for translating the EIA Reports in the local language. The Zero Draft has nothing to say about how the written comments submitted by NGOs at the public hearings will be dealt with. It makes no provision for the submission of written representations electronically via email.

What I find even more shocking is the fact that the participation of non-governmental representatives on the numerous committees has been drastically curtailed. Despite huge problems regarding non-compliance with the environmental clearance conditions, there is no new provision built into the notification to ensure better compliance. The empanelment of institutions of national repute to monitor compliance is rife with potential conflicts of interest as almost all of them are involved in the process of preparing EIAs. Nothing is said about what is to be done if the environmental clearance conditions are not complied with.

One can only hope that wiser counsel will prevail and the MoEF&CC will hopefully be rebooted to carry out its mandate—that of protecting the environment, the country and the planet for future generations.

—The writer is Executive Trustee, Conservation Action Trust

 

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