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Diluting the EIA process spells a path of no return

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The draft environmental impact assessment 2020 is a brazen attempt to weaken critical checks and balances

On July 12, Fridays for Future India (FFF), a collective of young environmental campaigners, received a notice from the Delhi police that accused it of committing offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Its alleged crime: “sending too many emails” to the Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, with subjects tagged “EIA 2020”. Over the last few weeks, the FFF has organised a sustained protest against a proposed new notification, which aims to replace the existing model of conducting environmental impact assessments (EIA) in India. The notice the group received claimed that the campaign’s details published on its website contained “objectionable contents” and constituted “unlawful activities or terrorists act[s]” which were “dangerous for the peace, tranquillity and sovereignty of India”.

The wreckages of COVID-19, one would have thought, would have given the government a chance to reassess what its goals towards climate justice ought to be. After all, the pandemic has had a searing effect on how we lead our lives. It has altered our relationships not only with each other but also with the environment. During this time, the decades of pitiful investment in public health and education have clearly been brought to the fore, as has the fragility of our basic infrastructure.

But the responses to the crisis seem to mirror the failures of the past: the more that goes wrong, the more we want to do the same things again, as though all that we desire is a return to a pre-pandemic status quo. What we do not seem to understand is that the supposed normality that we are craving does not mean that there are no fresh disasters ahead. And those disasters, as every sign demonstrates, are likely to be all the more catastrophic unless we contend with the deplorable neglect that we have shown towards the environment. It is time we recognised, as Bill McKibben wrote in The New Yorker, that “normal is the enemy”.

Culture of disregard

Yet, the proposed new EIA policy symbolises a rush to restore society to where it was before COVID-19 halted its motor of progress. The draft notification takes an already inadequate system and seeks to infuse into it a culture of disregard. It is almost as though, to the state, the global climate emergency is operating in a parallel universe of its own.

Around the world, legislative interventions mandating EIAs began to burgeon in the late 1960s. The basic credo of these measures was to ensure that the state had at its possession a disinterested analysis of any development project and the potential impact that it might have on the environment. It took India, though, until 1994 before it notified its first set of assessment norms, under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. This policy mandated that projects beyond a certain size from certain sectors — such as mining, thermal power plants, ports, airports and atomic energy — secure an environmental clearance as a precondition to their commencement. But the notification, subject as it was to regular amendments, proved a failure.

Abandoning rigour

In 2006, a new EIA programme was conceived, ironically on the back of corporate pressure. There was a belief that the 1994 system hindered speedy growth. The new draft attempted to decentralise the process. It increased the number of projects that required an environmental clearance, but also created appraisal committees at the level of both the Centre and States, the recommendations of which were made a qualification for a sanctioning. What is more, the programme also mandated that pollution control boards hold a public hearing to glean the concerns of those living around the site of a project.

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