Business friendly, environment unfriendly

On March 23, as the country faced a complete lockdown that left millions of migrant workers stranded without food and shelter, India’s environment ministry put out a draft proposal to amend the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), with a 60-day deadline that has now been extended to August 11 for public comments. The Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020, seeks to replace the EIA notification of 2006 for all future projects.

The EIA is supposed to work as a strong and independent gatekeeper of the environment, but in the process it has also acquired the reputation of being a process that delays projects.

The EIA is the backbone of all environmental clearances and sets out a process that assesses the potential environmental impact of a proposed project and decides whether it may or may not proceed or need modification. It has been described by the ministry as a planning tool to integrate environmental concerns into the developmental process from the initial stage. As such, it is supposed to work as a strong and independent gatekeeper of the environment, but in the process the EIA has also acquired the reputation of being a process that delays projects. The underlying principle at work here is preventing irreparable harm that can be caused to sensitive eco systems by unrestrained business activity that uses technology to root out bionetworks that have taken several human lifetimes to evolve and become a part of our wealth of natural resources. The EIA process works thus: following the environmental assessment by an Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), a preliminary report is prepared, on the basis of which the public consultation process is put in place. At this stage, objections to the project, especially from those affected by it, are heard. After a further and final appraisal by the EAC, the project is sent to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, which is the regulatory authority.

There have always been strong lobbies against the process of environmental clearance for projects and the changes now being suggested add to fears that this government has found a way to please business at the cost of India’s green wealth.

All of this brings comfort to those who seek to protect the environment and demand strict enforcement of India’s green laws but the entire process is seen as anti-business and a hindrance for faster growth. There have always been strong lobbies against the process of environmental clearance for projects and the changes now being suggested add to fears that this government has found a way to please business at the cost of India’s green wealth. This is not to argue that the EIA is always effective in protecting the environment but as a framework, it has stood strong in terms of its intention and its processes.

Consider that a compendium of gazette notifications, office memoranda under EIA notification, 2006, produced by the government runs into over 600 pages. This is a Hindi-English document, and even if you remove any supplicates, the compilation is long and tells us a lot about how the EIA has been changed, cut, corrected, explained and even twisted.  The latest of which came on April 15, when an amendment was introduced to ramp up availability and production of bulk drugs within a short span of time in the light of the pandemic. Further, in March 2017, the environment ministry issued a notification, providing a six-month window to get an environmental clearance “as a one-time opportunity” to units which had not obtained prior environmental clearances as was required. This was like an EIA amnesty scheme! The idea, the government announced, “is to take away the economic benefit (if any) derived by the company due to violation and pay for the remediation of damage caused due to violation.” It is as if damage to the environment can be paid off and sorted with a fine.

This comes at a time when the minister of industry and the minister of environment are one and the same, a clear conflict of interest that strikes at the very root of a framework that for years has been used to fight for the protection of the environment.

With this backdrop, the worry is that the proposed new version of the EIA under the guise of “streamlining” the process, seeks to clear the way for quite a different kind of unilateral goal – which is “ease of doing business”.  While ease of doing business is a desirable goal, achieving this and degrading the environment in the process doesn’t say much either about the busines or about the cost to the nation.  Further, this comes at a time when the minister of industry and the minister of environment are one and the same, a clear conflict of interest that strikes at the very root of a framework that for years has been used to fight for the protection of the environment. The new EIA is the work of a government in a hurry to show that it is business friendly.

Take the example under the exemptions from public hearings as stipulated under the EIA norms. The list of exemptions from this process is far longer in the 2020 draft, covering all projects falling under items a dozen of the schedules located within Notified Industrial Estates. What are these schedules? They cover: secondary metallurgical industry, chlor-alkali industry or production of halogens, soda ash, chemical fertilisers and standalone ammonia plants, manufacturing of acids, pesticides including insecticides; herbicides; weedicides; pest control; etc., and their specific intermediates (excluding formulations), manmade fibres manufacturing, petroleum products and petrochemical based processing, synthetic organic chemicals, paints, varnishes, pigments, intermediates, common bio-medical waste treatment facilities, common effluent treatment plants. The essence is of easing what is seen as a hurdle in getting the required environmental clearances.

It is critical changes in consumption patterns, in healthful choices and in the way more people are conscious about the ingredients that go into products that companies can see the coming change.

On a more important note, the changes indicate that the BJP at the Centre is unmindful of the concerned voices building into a huge lobby on issues regarding the environment. Young audiences across the country are fired by concerns on the environment and health. In Maharashtra, State minister Aditya Thackeray (son of the Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray) is seen as a young politician tuned into these concerns. It is critical changes in consumption patterns, in healthful choices and in the way more people are conscious about the ingredients that go into products that companies can see the coming change. The BJP cannot. Its blind eye may come at a huge cost to India and its vast, irreplaceable treasure trove of natural resources.

 

(Lekha Rattanani is the Managing Editor of The Billion Press)