Draft EIA disgraceful and dangerous, says Rahul

New Delhi: The union environment ministry has received well over 100,000 comments and suggestions from people on the draft environment impact assessment (EIA) notification of 2020 that some green activists say could severely undermine environmental regulation in India.

“The number of comments is way over a lakh. We are still compiling the submissions. We have been overwhelmed with the number of comments,” said a senior environment ministry official who declined to be identified. The feedback was based on the count as of Friday. The deadline for submission of feedback is Tuesday.

Environmental activists have been critical of the draft EIA notification, which was published by the environment ministry in March, because of a number of contentious clauses that they say could weaken environmental regulation.

“The government itself will turn its policy interventions into horror stories on the ground if projects are not put through rigourous, EIA procedures in an impartial manner,” said Manju Menon, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research

The notification became a potential issue for a political debate on Sunday when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said the notification was “not only disgraceful, it is dangerous.”

#IndiaNotForSale was also trending on Twitter which had people drawing attention to concerns over the draft notification and demanding it be withdrawn. Not only does it have the potential to reverse many of the hard-fought-for gains that have been won over the years in the battle to protect India’s environment, it could potentially unleash “widespread environmental destruction and mayhem across India,” Gandhi wrote in a lengthy post on a social media platform.

He highlighted contentious clauses and said if a project is labelled strategic, highly polluting industries could be exempted from the environment impact assessment process and that an EIA can be conducted post facto, after a project has already violated the EIA notification by starting construction without getting an environmental clearance.

“This EIA 2020 draft is a disaster. It seeks to silence the voice of communities who will be directly impacted by the environmental degradation it unleashes. I urge every Indian to rise up and protest against it. Our youth, who have always been at the forefront of every battle to protect our environment, must take up this cause and make it their own. A fight to protect our environment cuts across political and ideological beliefs,” Gandhi wrote, adding: “If nothing else, the recent Covid19 pandemic has shown us how fragile human life is. For millions of Indians already living on the edge, the environment isn’t an abstract term, but a life and livelihood issue. If EIA 2020 is notified by the government, the long-term consequences of the widespread environmental degradation will be catastrophic for us and future generations of Indians.”

Congress leader and former environment minister and chairman of the parliamentary committee on science, technology, environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, wrote to Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar more than once last month, raising these concerns. Javadekar also responded in writing, suggesting that the concerns were “unfounded” and based on “misrepresentation.”

There was much controversy around the draft also because Delhi Police issued a notice to a youth climate group, Fridays For Future, under Section 79(3)(b) of the Information Technology Act, 2000, invoking section 18 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act on July 8 and said that their website depicts contents “which are dangerous for the peace, tranquillity and sovereignty of India.”

The notice was issued following a complaint by Javadekar against multiple emails sent to him on the subject of EIA 2020.

Delhi Police later clarified that the July 8 notice issued under UAPA was a “clerical error” which was withdrawn and that a fresh notice had been sent to the group.

Environment ministry officials in the EIA division said it will take a long time for the ministry to look into every comment before taking a call on notifying the draft.

“The time for comments expires on August 11. But it will take us quite some time to go through the comments and discuss,” said Geeta Menon, joint secretary, environment ministry. HT sought a response from Javadekar through the Press Information Bureau, but didn’t receive a reply until late Sunday. Environment secretary RP Gupta also did not respond to HT’s calls for a response on Sunday

On a petition to extend the deadline for public comments on the draft notification, the Delhi high court had extended the time for submission of feedback until August 11 from the June 30 date originally set by the ministry. The court also asked the Centre to publish the notification in all vernacular languages on websites.

“We have been informed that the environment ministry has moved the Supreme Court against Delhi high court’s order of translating the draft in all languages. We are a respondent in SC too,” said Vikrant Tongad, the advocate who had filed the petition to extend the deadline in the Delhi high court.

Major concerns with draft EIA 2020:

• Post-facto clearances: Detailed protocol for appraisal of projects that have started operating without approval. Projects that have violated norms can be regularised based on appraisal and asked to furnish a bank guarantee.

• The draft exempts many projects seeking an expansion or modernisation with a capacity increase of up to 50% and even establishment of new projects from requiring a public consultation

• Extended time for reporting of compliance with environment clearance conditions

• Reduces public consultation period from 30 days to 20 days

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