August 12, 2020 12:14:13 am
In March, the Union Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change invited public comments on a draft notification that seeks to overhaul the country’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) procedure. The ministry set June 30 as the deadline for the feedback. The Delhi High Court extended this window to August 11 in response to a petition by environmental activists — the court remarked that the “process of consultation is not an obstacle… it has some sanctity”. In its 150-day sojourn in the public sphere that ended on Tuesday, the draft has attracted, according to the ministry, “four to five lakh responses”. These include criticisms of environmentalists, academics and civil society groups, concerns raised by people from ecologically fragile areas such as the country’s Northeast and objections voiced by the former Union environment minister, Jairam Ramesh. In parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, people braved the COVID pandemic to protest against the proposed changes — the Kerala government reportedly submitted its comments on Tuesday. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has termed these criticisms as “premature”. But the public consultation process has flagged important concerns about the environmental regulatory regime. The ministry must pay heed to them, take them on board.
Framed in 1994 to address the safety concerns raised in the decade after the Bhopal gas tragedy, the EIA is a part of the Environmental Protection Act, 1986. It was last revised in 2006. Activities that “access, utilise and affect natural resources” fall under its purview. The regulatory regime was also framed as a social safeguard — it recognised that land sought by project developers could have economic and cultural significance for communities. At several places, however, authorities contrived to dilute the EIA’s public consultation process. In 2000, in Centre for Social Justice v the Union of India, the Gujarat High Court observed, “Officials are holding public hearings at district headquarters. The persons who are likely to be… adversely affected in environmental matters, are poor persons who would not travel a long distance between the proposed project site and the district headquarters.” The court also noted that “the minutes of the public hearing are either not recorded or not given to the concerned persons”. The Supreme Court also flagged the undermining of public hearing procedures in its Vedanta verdict of 2013.
The proposed amendments to the EIA have invited criticism for sanctioning — and codifying — such dilutions to the regulatory mechanism. The period of public hearing has been reduced from 30 days to 20 days. The draft legitimises violations by developers who begin projects without obtaining due clearances, in apparent disregard of the SC’s reservations against post facto certificates — the latest as late as April, this year. Exemptions to projects that ostensibly have environmental benefits — renewable energy parks, for example — have also drawn criticism. Critics have pointed out that such projects involve diversion of agricultural lands and have a bearing on people’s livelihoods. The environment ministry must make sure that the final EIA draft does justice to the complex relations between environment, development and local communities that the public consultation process has brought to light.
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