A recipe for disaster

The draft EIA notification will hit the Northeast, a critical biosphere hotspot in the country, the most

By Author Geetartha Pathak   |   Published: 6th Aug 2020   12:05 am Updated: 5th Aug 2020   11:31 pm

Notwithstanding the critical impact on their lives and also on the economy, people took solace in some positive consequences of the pandemic on the environment like decreasing air and water pollution levels, returning of the endangered species and relief from extreme weather.

Amid such hope comes the draft EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) notification, 2020, like a thunderbolt, that intends to do away with obtaining consent as well as scrutiny of the public, who are likely to be affected by any big project in their vicinity.

No Explanation

The northeast part of India, which is one of the biosphere reserve hotspots in the country, will bear the brunt of the EIA 2020 notification the most. The draft states that no information on projects marked “strategic” by the government shall be placed in the public domain. This will enable summary clearance for any project deemed strategic without having to explain why.

It allows the Central government to set up industry within a 100-km aerial distance from any international boundary without a public hearing. Since almost all States of the northeast are adjacent to international borders with countries like China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, most of the areas will fall under the 100-km distance criteria and consequently, the draft notification is directly against the interests of the people of the eight northeastern States, including Sikkim.

Devastating Impact

Just before the notification, a series of events enraged the Northeast, particularly Assam, for its devastating impact on the environment and livelihood of the people.

The National Board of Wild Life (NBWL), under the Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), on April 17 allowed opencast coal mining at the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary affecting a major part of upper Assam. In May, the MoEFCC granted environmental clearance for extension of drilling and testing of hydrocarbons at seven locations by Oil India Limited (OIL) under the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) area in Tinsukia district of upper Assam.

On May 27, as a result of a blowout that led to the uncontrollable flow of oil and gas from a natural gas well of OIL at Baghjan, adjacent to DSNP, and the devastating fire on June 9, two firefighters were killed and over 2,000 families were displaced. These also caused extensive damage to biodiversity and wildlife in the region. The well is adjacent to the Maguri-Motapung Wetland and Dibru Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve, which are among the few remaining habitats for many endangered and range-restricted species. Again on July 22, three foreign experts were injured in an explosion near OIL’s gas well number 5 at Baghjan.


Manipulated Reports

These happened because there have been irregularities in giving environmental clearances to projects. In many such environmental assessments, benefits are grossly exaggerated and costs underplayed by fudging data. For example, in the EIA for Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project, the number of species affected has been considerably underestimated. Similarly, the Tipaimukh Dam Project report downplays the rich biodiversity — both faunal and floral — in its affected area – a biodiversity hotspot.

The new draft intends to institutionalise the irregularities and violations of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The Centre has brought the draft EIA notification by exercising powers under Section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. However, the relevant section of the Act categorically says that “the Central Government shall have the power to take all such measures as it deems necessary or expedient for the purpose of protecting and improving the quality of the environment and preventing, controlling and abating environmental pollution.”

Diluting Norms

The EIA became mandatory in 1994 – after the government notified it as a requirement under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The draft notification intends to replace the 2006 notification, which itself was a dilution of the environmental norms. The 2006 EIA regulation brought a major change in the regulation by increasing the number of projects requiring environmental clearance.

The notification also involved States in granting clearance for projects mentioned in Schedule I, and mandated the formation of a State Expert Appraisal Committee, the recommendations of which were to be considered before granting approval. The responsibility of conducting public hearings was given to the pollution control boards instead of the proponents of the project. The process of pubic consultation was diluted in the 2006 notification by including a provision which stated that if the situation was not conducive to conducting public consultation, then the EIA could be forgone.

The new notification, in fact, has made the EIA meaningless. The reduction of time period from 30 to 20 days for the public to submit their responses with regard to the new notification goes against the 2010 order of the Delhi High Court in the Samarth Trust Case. The HC noted: “if adequate time is not given for the preparation of views, comments and suggestions to those who would be affected by the project, then such public hearings would not be meaningful. The current notification, if it comes into force, is a move towards seeking investment irrespective of any adverse consequences that could follow.”

Stockholm Declaration

A signatory to the Stockholm Declaration (1972) on Environment, India first enacted laws to control water in 1974 and air pollution in 1981. An umbrella Act for environmental protection was enacted in 1986 after the Bhopal gas leak disaster in 1984. The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment on June 5-6, 1972, in Stockholm proclaimed, “The protection and improvement of the human environment is a major issue which affects the well-being of peoples and economic development throughout the world; it is the urgent desire of the peoples of the whole world and the duty of all Governments”. The draft EIA notification 2020 has ignored the proclamation of the Stockholm Declaration.

President Donald Trump is being criticised for US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, dismantling clean power plants, blocking rule to phase out inefficient light bulbs, etc. The impact of such an anti-environmental policy of the Trump administration on the economy of the country will be disastrous but it will take time to affect the strong US economy. However, the impact of similar environmental policy will be devastating on the already fragile economy of India.

(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)

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