UN Experts Flag Concerns On EIA Notification


  • Recently, a group of Special Rapporteurs to the United Nations has written to the Centre expressing concern over the proposed Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020.
  • It has sought the government’s response on how the provisions of the notification were consonant with India’s “obligations under international law”.

Vital Concerns raised by UN Special Rapporteurs

  • Under the Clauses 14 (2) and 26, the notification provide an exemption to a number of giant industries such as chemical manufacturing and petroleum merchandise, constructing, widening of nationwide highways, etc. from public consultation — as part of the environment impact assessment process.
  • The rapporteurs argued that the exemptions were unwarranted, particularly when there was a serious gas leak from (LG Polymers) chemical plant in Visakhapatnam on May 12, 2020 and oil gas blowout in Assam’s Dibrugarh in June, 2020.
  • The draft notification doesn’t require publication of data or holding of public session for tasks labelled by the Central authorities as ‘involving strategic concerns’.
  • There is clause on “post-facto clearance” is worrisome. These are forprojects which began without acquiring the required environmental clearances or permissions.
  • Overall, it contradicts fundamental ideas associated to the environmental rule of regulationthat obstructed people’s rights to a safe, clean and healthy environment.

Indian Government’s Response over the Concerns

  • The government said that nothing in the proposed EIA, 2020 violated the UN Declaration of Human Rights and that the rapporteur’s concerns were “misplaced”.
  • The proposed EIA is still a draft and issued for public consultation and that there were several imperfections in the existing EIA that were to be amended in the new notification.
  • With regard to post-facto clearances, the violation of not taking prior approval would be punished as per law and projects that were already running would be considered only on merit.

UN Special Rapporteurs

  • They are independent experts working on behalf of the United Nations.
  • The mandate of the Special Rapporteur was created by the Human Rights Council to protect and promote freedom of opinion and expression, offline and online, in light of international human rights law and standards.

Furore over Draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2020

The draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 proposed by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has met with massive opposition.

Contentious Clauses in Draft EIA, 2020

  • Re-Categorisation of Projects: It re-categorises all the projects and activities related to the production of bulk drugs and intermediates for several ailments from ‘A’ category to ‘B2’ category.This re-categorisationwill seriously affect the environment, since these will be carried out without oversight.
  • Post-facto Approval: The new draft allows for post-facto approval for projects. It means that the clearances for projects can be awarded even if they have started construction or have been running phase without securing environmental clearances.It implies that those projects can also seek clearance that violate the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (EPA).
  • Reducing Public Participation: Numerous provisions of the new EIA also endanger the basic tenets of public participation. The period for public consultation has been reduced from 30 days to 20 days. Considering the socio-political context of the vulnerable population typically affected by ‘development’ projects, this reduction could literally exclude some groups of people from consultation.
  • Exemption of Strategic Projects: The 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.These points to excessive executive discretion.
  • Compliance Report Issue: The 2006 EIA required that the project proponent submit a report every six months, showing that they are carrying out their activities as per the terms on which permission has been given.However, the new draft requires the promoter to submit a report only once every year.During this period, certain irreversible environmental, social or health consequences of the project could go unnoticed because of the extended reporting time.
  • Exemption to Construction Projects up to 150,000 sq m: It also exempts up to 150,000 sq m construction projects from the assessment. These projects can now gain environment clearance after scrutiny by state-level expert appraisal committee. Earlier, the exemption was granted to construction projects of up to 20,000 sq. m or above.

Critical Analysis

  • Though established to safeguard the environment, the EIA process, argue activists, often achieved the opposite by offering a facade of legal paperwork for a range of de facto concessions enjoyed by industries.
  • For example, reports on project’s potential (damaging) impact on the environment — the bedrock of the EIA process — are frequently shoddy and consultant agencies that prepare those reports for a fee are rarely held accountable.
  • Lack of administrative capacity to ensure compliance often renders long lists of clearance conditions meaningless.
  • On the other hand, developers complain that the EIA regime dampened the spirit of liberalisation, leading to red tape and rent-seeking. Delay in project clearance during the UPA-II rule became an election issue in 2014 when then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi hit out at the Congress by claiming that files did not move in the Environment Ministry till “Jayanthi tax” was paid.
  • The 2020 draft offers no remedy for the political and bureaucratic stronghold on the EIA process, and thereby on industries. Instead, it proposes to bolster the government’s discretionary power while limiting public engagement in safeguarding the environment.
  • The government’s actions on environmental regulation (as opposed to its bon mots and rhetoric) show that it considers it an impediment to the ease of doing business.

Conclusion

  • India is a party to the Rio declaration adopted by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, which enunciated a catalogue of environmental principles including sustainable development, precautionary principle, and EIA.
  • India is also party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which contain a requirement to have a prior EIA in situations having a significant threat to the environment.
  • Weakening the EIA process is essentially anti-democratic. For affected communities, where seismic shifts in the local environment can threaten livelihoods, flood a valley or destroy a forest, public consultation is a referendum on existential threats.
  • 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.
  • The dilution of environmental standards in the EIA needs to be evaluated in the background of the robust environmental principles operating at the national and international levels.
  • Also, decisions that will lock-in carbon-intensive infrastructure in the long term need to be scrutinised, particularly in light of India’s commitments under the Paris Agreement process.
  • The Environment Ministry needs to be clear about its role — its mandate is to create and sustain a regulatory framework that prevents the plunder of our natural resources, not actively accelerate the pace of environmental devastation.
  • As India is a highly vulnerable country, it should be the government’s priority to ensure that regulatory approvals do not make parts of the country more vulnerable or adversely impact the adaptive capabilities of communities.

Environmental Impact Assessment(EIA)

  • It is a process of evaluating the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project or development, taking into account inter-related socio-economic, cultural and human-health impacts, both beneficial and adverse.
  • It prevents the proposed activity/project from being approved without proper oversight or taking adverse consequences into account.
  • UNEP defines EIA as a tool used to identify the environmental, social and economic impacts of a project prior to decision-making.
  • It aims to predict environmental impactsat an early stage in project planning and design, find ways and means to reduce adverse impacts, shape projects to suit the local environment and present the predictions and options to decision-makers.