Build a dam to take water AWAY from 40 million people. Build a dam to pretend to BRING water to 40 million people. Who are these gods that govern us? Is there no limit to their powers?” ― Arundhati Roy, The Cost of Living
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By Our Bureau Chief, Vijaylakshmi Nadar, Edited By Adam Rizvi, New York, TIO: If there is anything that the COVID crisis has taught the world, it is how not to take nature lightly, if a crisis like the pandemic, flooding, water shortage, pollution needs to be avoided. The world was enchanted as images of water bodies coming alive, animals and birds taking to the streets because of the peace that prevailed during the lockdown, surfaced all over the internet, proving that nature does not appreciate the destructive development that mankind is indulging in. The lessons, however, seem to be completely lost on the Indian government led by prime minister Narendra Modi, which is now eyeing the country’s natural bounty, its rivers, its forests, and mountains to sell to the highest bidder, following the complete dilution of the Environment Investment Assessment (EIA) bill, pushing the 2020 version of it hurriedly, before the country and the world wakes up from the COVID crisis!
Modi who came to power claiming that he plans to make the country a “Vishwa Guru”, (a world leader), is doing so not by building schools, hospitals,
industries, generating employment or initiating any kind of development. Instead, he plans to make the country a “Vishwa Guru”, by wrecking the economy, imposing higher taxes, by indulging in large scale disinvestment which has jumped from Rs 24,000 crores in 2014-2015 to over one lakh crores in 2017-19, and all set to increase to two lakh crores as mentioned in this year’s budget. As if that was not enough, he is selling even those highly profitable revenue-generating Public Sector Units (PSU’s), none of which was created by his government, under the grab of minimum governance. Amid a COVID crisis, when the country is all set to overtake the USA for the top position in the number of cases, the government is busy holding meetings with NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Aayog (commission), the finance ministry and the Department of Investment and Public Assessment Management (DIPAM), lining up what PSU’s to sell next! After having done away with mining, railways, airports, construction of roads and railways, and telecommunication, the sectors waiting to be sold are the banking sectors, petroleum, and atomic energy sectors, defense, space, and ports. This is being speedily done under the cover of the crisis. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that the government is pushing to clear the EIA 2020, in a matter of days in complete disregard for the havoc that it would cause in the environment affecting us all.
What is the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)? EIA is a process of assessing the likely environmental impact of a proposed project or development, taking into account inter-related socio-economic, cultural, and human-health impacts, both beneficial and adverse. A typical EIA would weigh in the various risk factors associated with the project and then look into the community angle, primarily those directly impacted by the project.
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History of EIA
On 27 January 1994, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MEF), promulgated an EIA notification making Environmental Clearance (EC)mandatory for expansion or modernization of any activity, under the
Environmental (Protection) Act 1986, It is, therefore, the only major piece of legislation that came into being to stem further damage to the environment because of limitless modernization and industrialization. And yet, EIA is just a ministerial notification malleable to political whim and not a full-fledged Act.
The EIA was established for the greater good of the people but has become the government’s legal cover to take over the environment. Successive governments have used EIA to expand their political control by favoring corporate entities, by wresting control from collective control of communities and handing it over to them, For industry representatives who would like to have unhindered access to the country’s natural resources, EIA is an unnecessary hurdle to cross and have therefore influenced several governments to modify it.
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To environmentalists, EIA legitimizes environmentally degrading projects, because the rejection rate under EIA is nearly zero. Despite parties from both sides being unhappy with EIA procedures all these years, which exists mostly to satisfy the international community, this system of regulating the transfer of valuable environmental resources that sustain entire communities and cultures, to profit-making projects, has prevailed, to suit the government.
The COVID crisis and the forced lockdowns around the world resulted in lowered pollution levels, which is a clear indication that the present development is not conducive to the ecosystem, and is allowing us to make a green recovery. But the new draft shows that we haven’t learned the lessons yet that while it takes centuries for natural resources to evolve, it takes just a few years to destroy it permanently, creating all sorts of natural disasters, like floods, water shortage, pollution, increasing temperatures among others, which affects us all.
Over the last 50 years, around 50 million people in India have been displaced due to development projects. At COP 25, India exhibited its seriousness and steadfast approach to tackle climate change. This new draft will come as a major embarrassment to the country at the international level. India ranked a lowly 177 out of 180 countries in the last Environment Performance Index (EPI) 2018, prepared by Yale and Columbia Universities along with the World Economic Forum.
What are the various problems posed by the present EIA 2020?
1) It is being hurriedly pushed by the central government during a pandemic when all attention is focussed on dealing with the virus. On March 12, just 10 days before the lockdown was announced on March 22, to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) published a draft of the EIA notification, inviting objections from the public within 60 days. After environmental activists made several representations to the environment ministry, of the inability of the public to respond due to the epidemic, the government extended the notice period till June 30. The deadline was further extended by the Delhi high court till August 11 for public feedback on the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020.
These representations however also ask for the scrapping of the present draft, after pointing major flaws in it, which defeats the entire purpose of an EIA, which has however been ignored by the ministry and the courts. The extensions are given for the public feedback therefore is to merely tone down the agitation against it.
2) EIA 2020 attempts to bring a drastic shift in the manner in which projects are given a green signal in India. Coal mining, construction sector, and power projects, all of which cost heavy damage to the environment are sought to be cleared without many hurdles, to Fastrack development. There is an entire section of projects, which will be considered ‘strategic’ by the government, and which may not be limited to just projects concerning national defense and security.
The EIA 2020 draft states that no information on " such projects shall be placed in the public domain". This gives the government/ministry unbridled power to clear a lot of projects, without much consultation.
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3) The EIA 2020, instead of strengthening the shortcomings of EIA 2006, attempts to make a complete mockery of it. Projects found violating the provisions of the Environment Act can get away with it by applying for a post-facto clearance and a fine. All that the violator has to do is to pay 1.5-2 times of " the ecological damage assessed and economic benefit derived due to violation", a small price to pay for the benefits reaped from the project, however ecologically disastrous it is. The Supreme Court as recently as in April this year, had criticized the process of granting post-facto clearances.
4) One of the key factors of the existing EIA is vesting some power with the people who could report the violations. The 2020 draft states that only the government which cleared the project in the first place can take cognizance of such violations. The other party which can report the violations to the authorities is the developers themselves. Why would they report against themselves is the moot question here. And the only plausible answer is that they can under-write the damages wrought by their projects and get away with minimum fines.
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5) The rush to pass EIA 2020, can be attributed to the fact that MoEFCC has stated on several occasions that environmental clearance processes have been a hindrance in development projects. The government under prime minister Narendra Modi is therefore seen as wanting to either do away with these processes or whittle them down to a bare minimum. Environmental damage has, therefore, become an acceptable collateral cost, in favor of development. This attitude can be best explained with the example of the clearance given to a second airport in Goa.
On March 29, 2019, the Supreme Court suspended the environmental clearance (EC) for the building of the second airport at Mopa in Goa and directed the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) to prepare a fresh report, following complaints of ecological damage. The CEO of the Niti Ayog, Amitabh Kant, however, wrote in a column that, quote “It is one thing to take into account the ecology, sensitivity, and fragility of the environment. But to put a complete stop to a critically important project that will greatly enhance one of Indias most popular tourist destinations
capacity could be irreparably harmful to investor confidence and foreign investment. As expected, investor concerns won over environmental concerns and in January
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In 2020, permission was granted for the construction of the airport.
EIA 2020 will enable the government to similarly grant permissions to such projects, however damaging they are to the environment, without any judicial interference.
6) A long list of projects has been excluded from prior environmental clearance according to EIA 2020, which includes inland waterways, national highway projects, and roads that cut through major forests and rivers. Construction projects, one of the most polluting sectors too will benefit hugely. Earlier projects spread over 20,000 sq meters required prior clearance, which has now been increased to 1,50,000 sq meters, encouraging large scale real estate development, leading to massive pollution.
7) Getting a favorable report under the earlier EIA was also not tough, as government-appointed auditors and consultants conduct the exercise. When the Commonwealth Games (CWG) village was constructed in Delhi, a lot of experts had pointed out that they were built on the Yamuna floodplains. And yet, NEERI, a premier government institution, cleared it by stating that the project was not on a riverbed or the floodplains of the river Yamuna. This was however proven false, when in the same year during the rains, the whole complex was flooded with rainwater, just a few days before the games. But though the EIA 2006 had its flaws, it vested some power in the hands of the general public who could report on any violations witnessed by them. The earlier EIA allowed 30 days for objections to be recorded, which instead of being increased, has now been reduced to 20 days, against supreme court directives.
This even though the EIA drafts can run into about 1000-1500 pages and yet, the poor Adivasis and villagers who are most affected by these violations, have only 20 days to peruse the documents and voice their objections to the rightful authority. Unlike in the past, after the projects start, there is no scope for the public
to register their protests.
8) The draft states that there will be no public opinions sought in border areas which are 100 km of aerial distance from the Line of Control, with countries bordering India. This covers the entire North East where forest land is still largely intact but which is in immediate danger now with the new draft.
9) As soon as the EIA 2020 zero drafts were released for public suggestions, there was a lockdown following the COVID crisis, making movement difficult. Several youngsters and environmentalists got on various internet sites to log in to their protests. Within days, they managed to send over 2.5 lakh emails, which prompted the government to come down heavily on these sites to shut them down, through the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI).
In the absence of feedback by post, this was the only way people could register there in cities. But most rural areas, who will be directly impacted by the projects are not even aware of this draft. The mainstream media has not shown any interest in it, to amplify discussions around it. On June 29th, the website Let India Breathe was rendered inaccessible, On 10th July, FridayForFuture.in (FFF), and thereisnoearthb.com were blocked. The Modi government is under such a state of panic that FFF has also received a notice by Delhi police, to shut their site or face consequences under the dreaded Unlawful Act. These websites were crowdsourcing public opinion and support, against the proposed EIA. The online platforms served as bridges between policymakers and citizens, which the government had problems with. All this shows that the government is not interested in getting public feedback.
10) Two recent incidents highlight the dire need for a stronger EIA, not a whittled down one like the EIA 2020. On May 7, a polymer industrial plant operated by LG in Vizag leaked toxic gas, killing 12 people and sending hundreds to the hospital.
Established by Hindustan Polymers in 1965, the plant had been taken over by South Korean firm LG in 1997, manufacturing polystyrene and expandable polystyrene using imported styrene and reprocessing of primary plastics into engineering plastics.
The ministry’s expert panel on violations; had raised questions on the chemical unit operating at existing capacity, ramping up production and changing product mix, without the necessary green nod from the Centre. The second was the massive fire in the Baghjan oil field, in Assam in June 2019. The massive blaze on June 9 was so extensive that it could be seen from a distance of 30 km. Two firefighters died in the blast, and thousands of people living in the vicinity had to be shifted to a relief camp. In gross violation of the environmental law, the oil field had come up very close to the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, which is rich in biodiversity and home to 36 species of mammals and 400 species of birds. After the fire died down, and natural gas and oil seeped from the well, into the surrounding water bodies, quite a few carcasses of marine animals showed up, including those of the critically endangered Gangetic Dolphins, their skins scalded beyond relief!
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Both these tragedies could have been averted if only the development and ease of the business were not prioritized over threat to the environment. India has witnessed the worst environmental disasters in the world including the Bhopal Gas tragedy and yet Enron, Lavasa, Sardar Sarovar Project, Tehri Dam have all come up in the past, flouting existing environmental laws. The fate of the Etalin power project, proposed in Arunachal Pradesh, one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world hangs in balance only to determine whether the project is economically viable or not, and not because it will be an environmental disaster. Lakhs of protests against it have been dismissed, for having similar content, The project involves the destruction of over 1,150 hectares of forest area which is classified as an “inviolate area” as prescribed by the environment ministry. The inviolate forest area is an area where no developmental project is allowed. Once the project gets clearance from the MoEFCC, it would result in the felling of over 270,000 trees.
Mumbai’s Aarey forest too was cleared to build a metro shed despite massive protests. Aarey was already declared as an eco-sensitive zone and yet large parts of it were denotified, so polluting red category industries could enter the area. Other projects which have been similarly cleared are the Coal mining in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, Assam, railway bridge through the Kawal Tiger Reserve, Telangana, a highway through Mollem Wildlife Sanctuary, Goa and the Nagpur-Mumbai Expressway.
11) The draft has also increased the validity of the environment clearances for mining projects from the present 30 years to 50 years and river valley projects from 10 to 15 years, thus increasing the risk of irreversible environmental, social, and health consequences. Industries that were required to submit two compliance reports
can make do with just one now, hiding environmental damages for longer.
The Modi government is hell-bent on pushing through EIA 2020 at the earliest. It is up to the citizens now, especially the youth, to take up the fight, before it is too late to stop the large scale tragedy that awaits us all!
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Compiled & Curated by Maham Abbasi