The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) of India has published the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020, with the intention of replacing the existing EIA Notification, 2006 under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The government wants to incorporate modifications made to the regulations through amendments in the interim period. An EIA makes a scientific estimate of the likely impacts of a project, such as a mine, irrigation dam, industrial unit or waste treatment plant.
In a democratic country like India, as much as it is essential that public institutions be democratic, it is also essential that democratic principles be upheld in all other spheres of governance. One such democratic concept is the Environmental Democracy. Environmental democracy is based on the idea that land and natural resource decisions adequately and equitably address citizens’ interests. Rather than setting a standard for what determines a good outcome, environmental democracy sets a standard for how decisions should be made.
At its core, environmental democracy involves three mutually strengthening rights that, while independently important, operate best in combination:
- the ability for people to freely access information on environmental quality and problems,
- to participate meaningfully in decision-making,
- to seek enforcement of environmental laws or compensation for damages.
Far too often, the public is not meaningfully engaged in decisions that could affect their health, livelihoods, and culture. These three key components – access to information, access to participation and access to justice – also known as “access rights” are reflected in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. They are at the heart of environmental democracy, embodying the procedural dimensions of the right to a healthy environment.
In the context of EIA Draft (2020), these fundamental principles of democracy are toyed and manipulated with to such an extent that one tends to believe that it is a wonderful example of Indian democracy at the first glance, but only a closer look reveals that the very idea of environment democracy is being systemically destroyed, leaving behind only the illusion for propaganda’s sake.
Regarding the right of access to information, EIA Draft (2020) shows that it is selective and deliberately selected to cater to the vote-bank of the ruling government. The 83-page draft document is purposefully released on their website in English and Hindi alone. What should have been a multi-lingual document disseminated to the grassroots is now only available only to the internet-accessing, English and Hindi speaking people of the country. Despite the Delhi High Court’s directions to the government to translate to 22 languages and the Karnataka High Court’s directions to make it available in regional languages, it hasn’t been done yet. The deadline of 11th August 2020 to give opinion on the draft is now severely inaccessible by the majority of the population of India, save the upper-caste, upper-class, English and Hindi speaking population, who also majorly are the patrons of the ruling government.
Access to participation is another right of the people, which is also now systemically being pushed as unnecessary. Public opinion is now legally being dismissed in the name of projects of strategic importance and National growth. This enables industries to operate very close to “Protected Area” in callous disregard for forests. This includes ‘border area’ which is area falling within 100 kilometres of aerial distance from the LAC with bordering countries of India. This would include much of the North-East India, thus stripping people of their sovereign rights and falling prey to the imperialistic crackdown on their resources. The state of India has always been considering the resources of the North Eastern states as the repository of India’s rich biodiversity, where in reality it should ideally belong to the respective states of the North East, and the decisions regarding those resources should be made by the people of the respective states through due democratic consultations.
The very need for this draft is to have people give their opinion on this draft and make necessary amends but when the common people start critiquing this draft, the foot soldiers of the ruling government and the law and order systems start targeting the dissenters. This stripping of common people’s dissent is nothing but failure of the democratic systems in the hands of the Indian State. Even big organizational dissenters, like Fridays for Future were slapped with UAPA for speaking against the government’s EIA Draft (2020).
Access to justice is the third of the ‘access rights’ in Environmental Democracy. EIA Draft (2020) is unequivocally dismantling this as well by legitimizing illegal exploitation. People could die of an accident caused by a factory which started working with no clearance or an industry that causes over exploitation of the environment because the EIA Draft permits easy clearances and scaling up without requisite compliance. Furthermore, common people will now not even be allowed to report violations and non-compliances in projects that are causing harm to environment and life. This leaves no scope for the people to seek justice and desperately hanging in a state of helplessness by raising the risk of irreversible environmental, social and health consequences.
The overall picture we get, from the way the state of affairs are bent to fulfil the agenda of the ruling government, is that the ruling government is least interested in environmental rationality but goes to any extent to uphold market rationality. In this process, they also tend to discredit science and conceal it behind profits and propaganda. Further, it needs to be understood that the claim of creating a conducive environment for development projects is also nothing but a step to lean towards market capitalism, favouring only the big players and their monopolies in the economy.
At this juncture, the question to be asked is: Development at what cost? Is it really development?
The answer to this question will only pave for a future where the environment will stay safe and environmental democracy. By fostering a better understanding of how environmental democracy principles are applied in countries throughout the world, work can be done towards improving quality of life for people and the planet.
The example of the struggle for Jal Jungle Zameen (translates to Water, Forest and Land) by the Adivasis (Indigenous people) of India shows how the common people need to exercise their rights to dissent and to create a safe environment for dissent is to be provided. Further, the abundant indigenous knowledge is also to be protected, without discarding them as science-less or as profit-less(as is the case now).
However, at all levels, reclaiming democratic power may, ultimately, only happen when land ownership is addressed. The land is the very means of survival. Who owns and operates that land is crucial to the problem of democracy. The productive yield of the land and how it is distributed is of central concern in the real economy. Do we use that land for ecology, for crops or for food security? Do we give large amounts of land to a private individual to shoot wild birds for their personal pleasure? The laws around land ownership and sovereignty are crucial to whether we live in a true democracy, or a plutocracy, or an archaic aristocracy.
The truth is that Nature owns the land, and we are merely its stewards. Any steward of the land should have a responsibility to Nature, and to the Community first before they consider their own personal rights and usage of the land.
Our system is back to front where the rights of the Individual trump the rights of the Community, and the both trump the rights of the Ecology (Nature). The correct direction is a fair balance between Nature–Community–Individual.
We need to stop, turn around and turn right side up. When we are no longer in a competitive race to the bottom, but rather a cooperative assent then we will know the world is correcting itself. When a few men in power no longer dominate others, but instead empower and support a mutual rise of all humans and life as we cooperate towards a better place, then we will know that the world is corrected.
However, at this point, it is essential to write to the Ministry before 11th August 2020 to give your opinion on the EIA Draft (2020). You may use the following email IDs.
Some of the other policy-level drawbacks of the draft are mentioned below as compiled by an Ecological Activist Yuvan M, and categorized broadly as per their violations of the “Access Rights” of Environmental Democracy.
Access to information
-No information about projects defined as “strategic” will be available to public (Clause 5(1))
-Compliance reports now will be submitted by industries only once a year, instead of once in a 6 months. (Clause 20(4));
-Systemic avoidance of information by prescribing meagre penalties when industries don’t submit compliance reports – from Rs 500, 1000, 2500 per day. Up to 3 years given for industries to go without submission. (Clause 20(5))
-Botches the data collection process. Where required, it needs biodiversity data from only one season, and accepts old data. (Clauses 13(2), 13(6))
-Narrow definition of eco-sensitive areas. The draft leaves out numerous protected areas from its definition, including reserved forests, village forests, wetlands, coasts, etc. (Clause 3 (21 and 22))
-It has not yet been made available in all states and languages. So inadequate information to participate. (Delhi High Court Order (30th June, 2020); Karnataka High Court Order (16th July, 2020))
Access to participation
– Misuses the power given to the central govt by the Environmental Protection Act, to take any measures necessary to “protect and improve the quality of the environment”. EIA has not followed due legal process. (Environmental Protection Act (1986) – Section 3(i); Delhi High Court Order (30th June, 2020); Karnataka High Court Order (16th July, 2020))
-Digitizes Environmental clearances. Compromises due diligence to make the clearance faster. (Clauses 12(3), 15(3), 16(5))
-Restricts the functioning of experts and scientists in the environmental clearance process. (Clauses 3(1), 6(4), 12(1))
-Projects like waterways, ropeways, irrigation, solar power stations don’t need an environmental clearance at all. (Clause 26)
-Over 40 harmful industries have been exempted from public consultation and the EIA process, including petroleum, mines, construction, dams, highways, etc. (Page 37-45 Schedule (Table)).
-Defines several terms like “Public Hearing” ambiguously and in a very limited sense (Clauses 1(60), 14(c))
-Where applicable, the public hearing period has been shrunk. Up to 50% expansion or modernization of any existing project does not require public consultaion. Up to 25% expansion doesn’t require any EIA process at all. (Clause 14(2), 16(1), Appendix 1(7))
-Linear projects 100km from the border are exempted from public consultation.(Clause 14(2)(f))
– National Board for Wildlife has been left out of the picture while considering projects in National Parks and wildlife Sanctuaries (Clause 17(5))
– Reduces the power of state governments to protect their wildernesses and communities. Goes against cooperative federalism and makes Centre more dictatorial in environmental decisions (Clauses 7(6), 7(7))
Access to justice
– Allows for post-facto approvals, for projects which have been illegally started. (Clause 22)
–National Parks and wildlife sanctuaries are no longer safe from so called B2 Category projects, to which various hazardous industries have been added or area requirements have been vastly expanded.(Note under Schedule, page 45)
-Violates several provisions of the Forest Rights Act, Atrocities Act and other laws which protect the rights of the local communities. (Forest Rights Act – Sections 3,4,6; Atrocities Act – Section 3(f,g))
-Creates a gaping legal loophole for industries to commit various social and environmental crimes and take no liability of that. (Indian Constitution – Articles 14, 19, 21, 29, 46, 51, 244, 253, 350, etc)
-Defines several terms like “Violation” ambiguously and in a very limited sense. Non-compliance of the conditions given in the environmental clearance for a project is not considered ‘violation’. (Clauses 1(60), 3(60), 14(c))
– The scope for public to seek legal help from NGT and other authorities has been restricted. For over 40 projects, industries have to report their own violations. Public cannot. (Clauses 23 and 25)
–Vastly increases the validity period of Environmental Clearances: Mining projects up to 30 years, increases to 50 years; River valley projects increases from 10 to 15 years; nuclear plants increased from 5 to 15 years; and all other projects increased from 7 to 10 years. (Clause 19(1))
– Promotes land grabbing by industries by allowing them to occupy/fence off land even before getting an environmental clearance. (Clause 4(3))
– Categorization of several projects is based on monetary investment and not environmental and social impact. (Schedule table page 37-45 and definitions in Small and Medium Enterprises Development Act, 2006)
– Lets officials go scot free without punitive action, if appraisal of a project is done badly, or falsely/misleading information is submitted. (Clause 17(5)).