Greater discretion for the government to decide on strategic projects, allowing promoters to declare violations themselves, and a substantive increase in number of projects that will escape scrutiny.
These are among the controversial clauses in the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) draft 2020 for which the deadline to file objections and suggestions by the public ends Tuesday.
Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said Monday that the objections will be discussed before the Ministry takes a call on the final draft. Officials said the Ministry has received 4-5 lakh responses, many of which are calls to withdraw the notification entirely. With feedback mostly comprising “repeat objections”, officials said, the Ministry will scrutinise about 50 main concerns.
Since the notification was issued in March, environmentalists and civil society groups have accused the Centre of trying to dilute existing norms to facilitate “ease of doing business”. They have said that the draft provides an avenue for project promoters to regularise violations by paying a penalty.
However, Environment Secretary R K Gupta told The Indian Express (interview, Page 5): “We have detailed the penalties for not having acquired environmental clearances, including EIAs, which is according to law and proportionate to the offence. Chori ke liye fansi ki sazaa toh nahin de sakte (We can’t sentence a man to hanging for committing theft)… Also, there is no regularisation of the violation. The penalty, which is being charged, is for the period that the industry has functioned without a clearance — the penalty is for not having obtained the clearance and not for pollution.”
Ravi Aggarwal, Additional Secretary, Environment Ministry, said that it is for the first time that the government has consolidated all processes, procedures and amendments related to clearances on one platform.
Reacting to criticism from political leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, Javadekar said: “It’s a draft, not a final notification. The notification was kept for public consultation for 150 days because of Covid. Otherwise, it is only 60 days as per rules. We will consider all the suggestions and come out with the final draft. Those who want to protest now have, during their regime, taken bigger decisions without any public consultation.”
The Minister was speaking at an event to release a booklet titled “Best practices of Human-Elephant Conflict Management in India”.
One of the main objections to the new EIA draft has been the post facto regularisation of violations, which is provided for in Clause 22 on “Dealing in violation cases’’. Violations can now be reported by the project promoters themselves or by an appraisal committee, regulatory body or government authority.
Environmentalists have described this move as “problematic” and said that project promoters hardly ever declare violations that they may have committed themselves.
The draft states that in case of a suo motu declaration, and if it is a case of high polluting load found detrimental to the environment, the project will be shut down. But if no degradation is identified, promoters will be charged Rs 5,000 per day in Category A projects, Rs 2,000 per day in Category B1 and Rs 1000 per day in Category B2. The fine will be calculated “for a period of date of violation to date of application’’, says the draft.
In case of violations reported by a government authority or found by the appraisal committee or raised during processing of applications by the regulatory authority, a separate set of fines will be levied: Rs 10,000 per day for Category A projects, Rs 4,000 per day in Category B1 and Rs 2,000 per day in Category B2.
Besides, Category B2 projects, which have been defined and listed for the first time, don’t require an EIA at all. The draft states that Category A projects require an EIA and approval from the Ministry, while Category B1 projects require an EIA and approval from an appraisal committee.
The draft also contains an “Exemptions list” of 40 types of projects, which include a number of new developments, including in oil and gas exploration (offshore and onshore), inland water ways, and coal and non-coal mineral prospecting.
Moreover, the Ministry has done away with the process of screening at the state level for B1 and B2 projects by defining them. The draft says that B2 projects can directly apply for permissions on a Ministry website. Presently, the state where the project is located would study it and decide whether it would be B1 or B2 depending on environmental concerns.
The monitoring of compliance to norms has come under scrutiny, too. The 2006 notification mandates that a project compliance report be filed every six months. This has now been reduced to once a year and, that too, in the form of self-compliance.
The draft, however, says that in case of failure to submit the compliance report, a fine will be levied. The Ministry has also now included the provision for third party assessment of compliance.
Experts, however, point out that compliance in India has been poor, citing accidents such as the LG Polymers gas leak in Vishakapatnam and the oil gas blowout in Assam’s Dibrugarh region in this year alone.
The draft has also eased norms for the construction industry, as only large projects, on plots above 20,000 square meters, will now need environmental clearance.
The Ministry’s introduction of the category of “strategic projects’’, which has been clubbed with Defence projects, has also been a cause of concern — they do not require public consultation, and information need not to be made public.
“While this was always the case with Defence projects, the government can now categorise any project — from roads to bridges to airports, etc — as a strategic project. In such cases, they don’t need to make the project details public and this points to excessive executive discretion,’’ said environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta.
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