Given how controversial the draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020 has been—environment activists say it waters down several existing provisions that were already weak, to begin with—it is just as well that the Delhi High Court has extended the deadline for public consultation on the same. The Centre had fixed a rather tight deadline, against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic already delaying the notification. Analysing the potential impact of the draft EIA norms notification is crucial to understand the trade-off between the environment and development—a Columbia University researcher, based on analysis of environment ministry data, has found that over 14,800 sq km of forest land had been diverted for infrastructural projects or is pending approval since 2014. For perspective, the environment ministry had approved diversion of a little over 21,600 sq km of forest land—as per a Hindustan Times report citing the Columbia researcher’s analysis of government data—for such projects between 1975 and 2014. While the development imperative can’t be summarily made to play second fiddle to environmental concerns, it can be no one’s case that the environment be sacrificed in an indiscriminate pursuit of development. The ideal EIA norms should strike a balance between the two goals.
However, many provisions of the draft EIA Notification 2020 seem to tilt the scales in favour of infrastructure over the environment. A key proposed change from the earlier regime—retrospective approval for projects that don’t have green clearance—has very damaging potential. The violator simply needs do is submit plans for remedial action and resource augmentation to the tune of 1.5-2 times “the ecological damage assessed and the economic benefit derived due to violation”. Indeed, while the Supreme Court, earlier this year, had ruled against ex-post-facto green clearance, terming it to be against sustainability and the “precautionary principle, in an order in the matter of Alembic Pharmaceuticals vs Rohit Prajapati, it is rather odd that the government should try to revive this. It isn’t difficult to imagine what it would mean in terms of regularisation of illegal quarrying projects that have devastated many ecosystems. Not just that, tagging the compensatory measure to the economic benefit derived will be fertile grounds for rent-seeking and graft. Apart from that, some environment experts have said, the move from the red, orange and green classification system of a project in terms of risk to the environment—with red denoting the highest risk—to the “A, B1, B2” classification under the proposed norms exempts a host of projects previously requiring prior environmental clearance from this. Another proposal that will draw brickbats is the one that completely shuts out the public in the name of “strategic projects”—the draft notification gives the Centre sweeping discretionary powers, allowing it to term any project (even other than defence and security) strategic, and stating that no information regarding such projects is to be shared with the public. Apart from exempting many projects—including in the North East, one of India’s richest reservoirs of biodiversity, through its provisions projects near the border—from public consultation, the draft notification also says that cognisance of a violation will only be taken on the basis of report by only the government or the project developer, on a suo motu basis. It is hard to fathom how the government sees walling out the public/whistleblowers being effective in the interest of the environment and communities.
The draft EIA notification needs wide and deep deliberation before it is finalised—to that end, the government will need to give enough time to both industry and environment experts. The provisions that could make it wholesale pro-development need to be tempered keeping in mind the fact that what might seem a small environmental cost today could have a significant bearing in the future.