Towering Inferno
Outlook|August 31, 2020
Towering Inferno
The draft Environment Impact Assesment has triggered outrage for watering down earlier provisions to protect the fragile ecology
Puneet Nicholas Yadav

THE intertwined issues of environment, conservation, and climate change rarely make for popular discourse. Jargon-ridden lectures at symposiums, technical research papers or declaration of global goals at international conferences by political talking heads make this expansive axis difficult for the public to navigate, leave alone comprehend. It is, thus, significant that the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 notification put out by the Centre received an unprecedented 18 lakh recommendations and suggestions from common people and activists.

The mandatory process for inviting objections and recommendations to the proposed changes in the EIA framework ended on August 11, the deadline set by the Delhi High Court. The court had set the new deadline after dismissing protestations from the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change, which wanted the consultation process closed on June 30, just over three months after the draft to replace the existing EIA 2006 was placed in the public domain on March 12.

If the massive public response—and outrage—against the draft EIA 2020 has created a record of sorts, the preceding months of the consultation process were no less ordinary. The draft evoked a sharp political response from the Congress, with Sonia Gandhi writing a lengthy op-ed in a national daily detailing the pitfalls of the proposed framework. Congress leader and former environment minister Jairam Ramesh too found an unlikely pen pal in incumbent environment minister Prakash Javadekar as the two exchanged letters countering each other’s contentions on the notification and posting them promptly on Twitter for all to see.

There was also the obtuse episode of the Delhi Police issuing a notice to NGO Fridays for Future India, invoking stringent charges under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, following a complaint by Javadekar about the organization flooding his email with comments on EIA 2020. The police later withdrew the notice, claiming that the slapping of terror charges was an “inadvertent error”. On Javadekar’s complaint about the clogging of his inbox, websites of three environment awareness groups—Fridays for Future India, Let India Breathe and There Is No Earth B—were also blocked. Moreover, four high courts were approached by petitioners raising various objections to the consultation process and the government’s refusal to provide translation of the notification in languages besides Hindi and English. Evidently, there is something about EIA 2020 that has riled the public unlike earlier environment-linked policy framework.

It was in the backdrop of the Bhopal gas tragedy of December 1984 that India got its first comprehensive legislation on the environment—the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. Though many countries had, by then, already begun expanding their policy frameworks to include regulations for projects that have a direct impact on the environment, it was not until 1994 that India notified its first EIA norms. Simply put, the EIA is an essential regulatory framework that identifies the impact a proposed project would have on the environment at large and the immediate ecology of the site in particular. It is meant to be an impartial assessment of the benefits of a proposed project as also its negative consequences, based on scientific surveys and consultations.

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August 31, 2020