Modi govt pushes to ease environmental laws; sparks fear of return to grim past

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September 9, 2020 10:50 AM

Battered by the pandemic, India’s government is making a renewed push to ease environmental laws that were formed as a result of the world’s deadliest industrial disaster more than three decades ago.

The government is proposing to reduce public participation, exempt some projects from rigorous appraisal and legalize others that are operating without environmental approval. (File image)

Battered by the pandemic, India’s government is making a renewed push to ease environmental laws that were formed as a result of the world’s deadliest industrial disaster more than three decades ago. The government is proposing to reduce public participation, exempt some projects from rigorous appraisal and legalize others that are operating without environmental approval, according to a draft posted by the Environment Ministry.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration argues that the rules are too onerous and deter investment in an economy that shrank almost 24% in the second quarter because of the virus. Environmentalists, lawmakers and citizen groups say the changes would only encourage more companies to ignore environmental rules in the belief that authorities don’t take them seriously.

“The mindset is that environment clearances are rubbish and a procedural hurdle for us to develop,” said Sreeja Chakraborty, a lawyer and co-founder of the Living Environment Advocacy Foundation. By diluting the law, the government is “encouraging people to violate the law.”

Courts and tribunals have struck down at least three efforts in the past three years by the environment ministry to dilute or waive environmental rules. India’s first major law originated in 1986, two years after poisonous gas leaked from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, killing more than 10,000 people. The law was supplemented with Environment Impact Assessment rules in 1994 and 2006 — requiring new projects to carry out an environmental impact assessment.

Two recent incidents that have revived memories of Bhopal won’t improve the government’s case.

Gas Leak

A nighttime gas leak in May at an LG Chem Ltd. polymer plant in the southern city of Vishakhapatnam, killed at least 11 people as well as scores of pet dogs, livestock and birds. The same month, a gas-well blowout at state-run Oil India Ltd. in the northeast killed two people, burned tea plantations and damaged several houses. The blast coated crops, lakes and farms with oil, according to a National Green Tribunal panel report. Protests have affected work at other fields, Oil India said.

Both projects were operating without sufficient due diligence on their impact on the environment and local communities, according to the appraisal committees.

“In spite of having a law which is relatively strict, all these are happening,” Chakraborty said. “So what happens when you remove or dilute provisions of the law?”

Oil India objected to the green tribunal’s report and said it had environmental clearance for the well. LG said the gas leak is under investigation and declined to comment.

Such disasters have mobilized India’s public to mount major protests that can often block projects. Citizens in the western state of Goa rallied against rail, highway and power-line projects that would cut through the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary, part of a Unesco World Heritage Site famed for its biodiversity. In neighboring Maharashtra state the central government backed down after the state’s environment chief, Aaditya Thackeray, opposed the opening up of coal mining next to a tiger reserve.

The national environment ministry, led by Prakash Javadekar, who is also minister of heavy industries, first made public the new draft of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020 in March, just as the country was entering the world’s biggest lockdown. The ministry didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on this story.

The federal government has the power to change the regulations without seeking a vote in the parliament if the changes are in the interest of the environment, according to New Delhi-based environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta. That would be difficult to establish in court for the new proposed changes, he said.

“It would be hard for the government to explain how it plans to protect the environment by allowing industrial projects to be set up without an impact assessment, legalizing past violations or squeezing the time for public consultation,” said Dutta, who is also founder of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment.

India ranks 168th, alongside Ghana, out of 180 countries on the biennial Environmental Performance Index, produced by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities. In 2016, it ranked 141st.

Aiding the government’s case is the need to preserve jobs as the coronavirus speads rapidly in the country, with some experts predicting the nation will surpass the U.S. as the worst outbreak globally.

Environmental concerns ranging from tiger habitats to pollution and desecration of tribal sacred sites have scuppered major industrial projects in the past, including a steel mill planned by South Korean steelmaker Posco that would have been the biggest foreign investment in India. Delays in getting environmental clearance also forced Rio Tinto Group to give back a diamond mine in central India and drove billionaire Anil Agarwal’s Vedanta Ltd. away from a bauxite project.

‘Unnecessary Bureaucracy’

“Unnecessary bureaucracy in environment approvals has slowed down industrial projects and has sometimes forced investors to pull out,” said V. R. Sharma, managing director at New Delhi-based Jindal Steel and Power Ltd. “It’s heartening to see the changes that streamline the process.”

Javadekar has said granting approval to projects would bring them under the regulatory regime and that permission to expand projects without public hearings would only happen in cases with no increase in pollution and with adequate safeguards.

The publication of the draft sparked a Twitter battle between Javadekar and the previous government’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, who heads a parliament panel on environment. Other lawmakers have also chimed in.

“It paves the way for corporations to exploit natural resources and the environment without the burden of regulations or restrictions,” said Elamaram Kareem, a Kerala-based member of the upper house.

As India pushes for more foreign and domestic investment to revive growth, ensuring the safety of citizens and the environment becomes even more important, Chakraborty said.

“There is a tsunami of projects that are being thrown at every state,” she said. “The kind of confidence they have right now, that nobody is watching and nobody will question us, is very dangerous.”

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