Note: This article was first published on May 6, 2020 and was republished on August 11, 2020.
The Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2020 has inverted the logic of ‘precautionary principle’ which forms the bedrock of India’s environmental outlook.
It seeks to create a permanent setup to regularise industrial processes that have evaded environmental clearance and curtail public hearings for many industries.
Interestingly the term ‘precautionary principle’ has its origins in the German word vorsorgeprinzip. Another translation of this word is ‘foresight principle’. Simply put, it asks us to ‘look before we leap’.
If the current pandemic has taught us anything, it is this – we as a species lack foresight and severely so.
Planetary health scientists and virologists had long cautioned that the transmission of disease from wildlife to humans is “a hidden cost of human economic development.” They had predicted that pandemics would come and disrupt global health, security and economies because we are going into largely undisturbed places and inviting exposure to viruses we are unaccustomed to. Kate Jones, a disease ecologist rightly put it a few days back when she said, “We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”
Today, the whole world including the most influential economies have been rendered defunct, incapable of protecting the lives of millions. When talk of a ‘new normal’ is rife across the world, where knowledge of the intricate links between the natural world and human society should be at the foreground and the global lockdown has significantly reduced our impact on the environment giving us a window-of-opportunity to address climate change, India cannot walk back into the dark ages.
The new notification comes in the wake of recent attempts to dilute environmental safeguards and follows from a tradition to widen the escape route for violators or environmental regulations.
Only recently the state government of Goa was caught blatantly engaging in fraud. It submitted a false report to obtain clearance for an airport near the ecologically sensitive Mopa plateau endangering not only flora and fauna but also marauding the livelihood of hundreds of farmers. Even after this, neither the government officers nor the EIA consultants who gave false information to secure the clearance were reprimanded. Instead, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the MOEF&CC revisited the project and issued a clearance.
Under such circumstances, granting ex-post-facto Environmental Clearance, or legitimising a let-mistakes-be-discovered approach, is dangerous. The Supreme Court, National Green Tribunal and the Madras high court have ruled against it in the past stating that it is “unsustainable-in-law”. India endorses the ‘polluter-pays-principle’, it cannot afford to endorse the “pollute-and-pay” sham.
Further, violators will be relied upon to self-report on violations! We have not forgotten how Sterlite hid its mining business and caused a social uproar, or, how Vedanta violated legal provisions to accrue benefits at the cost of the local tribal community. It is a mockery of the law and public trust to give a free hand to those who are only concerned with economic profits.
In an age which requires sincere efforts to protect the environment and public health, can we afford to let our vigilance take a backseat? Then why does the notification reduce the reporting requirements of project proponents to only once-a-year instead of the previous six-monthly reporting? This gives enough scope to hide or under-report the environmental and social consequences of a project.
Recently, a dyke at a Reliance power plant in Madhya Pradesh broke, spilling ashes over hundreds of acres of cropland, polluting the river and killing many individuals including children. This is the third time such an incident has occurred in a year.
A similar breach at an Essar power plant resulted in 500 farmers losing their crops yet the company alleged it was a “clear case of sabotage”. A government report later pulled up the company for “extreme carelessness by the management”, erecting a “substandard boundary” and “not clearing waste material from the boundary”. Such entities show no ecological and social responsibility and will thrive under the draft notification.
The notification is extremely dubious about trying to silence the voice of the people. Polluting industries like soda-ash, acids, petroleum and petrochemical products, dyes, biomedical waste, treatment plants, synthetics, paints, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and construction industries – all of which pose threats to human health – will be exempted from the public clearance process!
The strong local voice against hydro-electric projects in the north-eastern states was heard in the mainstream despite the North East remaining but a minor blip in the consciousness of the country. For instance, the Idu-Mishmi community raised their voices in each public hearing against the Dibang dam. According to a press report, “almost 99% of the speakers at the public hearing on the Dibang project said that they opposed the project.”
So they were coerced by paramilitary forces followed by an incident where they were fired at and over the years the government’s sustained attack on protestors managed to subdue their morale. All for raising their voice legitimately. Planning to erect such a dam in a seismically active zone is a disastrous and irresponsible decision on the part of the government anyway. But now, hydro-electric power plants are proposed to be exempted from public hearings altogether!
The draft notification comes with several other precarious provisions like the designation of ecologically sensitive areas as per the MOEF&CC. It is well-known that the dry grasslands of Gujarat and Rajasthan are home to critically endangered fauna like the Great Indian Bustard and are used by nomadic pastoralists. Under the current notification, such sensitive ecosystems will be left free to be looted and plundered by the corporate sectors. Sacred groves and numerous patches of remnant forest lands like the Aarey forest, public protests around the degradation of which have made it to the headlines time and again and encouraged environmental activists, are all left out.
Further, the accessory or sequentially dependent components of a project do not fall within the ambit of vigilance. In addition, the study area for Category A projects (i.e, projects with the most harmful consequences) is within 10 km and for Category B projects (i.e., projects with a less severe impact) is within five km. The combined effect of these two provisions could be disastrous. For example, power plants often build their own rail networks to transport materials. Local people have often protested against the transportation of materials for coal mines which leaves a cancerous environment behind. The impact of a thermal power plant can extend way beyond 300 kilometres.
The provisions which allow levelling of land without needing clearance and the preparation of an EIA report with baseline data from only one season other than monsoon are an absolute no-no. Wetlands that provide a lifeline for civilisations are already serially massacred by illegal filling up or levelling. Further, it is absolutely critically necessary to include baseline data of monsoon months in an EIA report on wetlands. The consequences otherwise are disastrous because wetlands purify and store water and are climate regulators. Marginal communities depend on them for sustenance.
Furthermore, what is the hurry to bring out this notification in the midst of the pandemic? How can public consultation take place during a time of death and disruption?
The current drop in carbon emissions and pollution should be celebrated. After all, air pollution kills over seven million people globally. We need to maintain the new environmental baseline as a country committed to addressing the climate crisis.
Coronavirus has shown us the scale of the response needed to fight the climate crisis and address human sustenance in the post-COVID-19 world. Walking back instead of adapting is out of the question. We are a democracy. The natural resources of India are our lifeline.
Tiasa Adhya has been working on globally endangered wetland species for more than a decade. She also received the Nari Shakti Puroskar award (the highest civilian award for women in India) in recognition of her work.