Conflict Alerts # 137, 5 August 2020
In the news
Following the uproar by conservationists in Northeast India against the destructive mega-development projects, several pan-Indian youth environmental groups initiated digital campaigns demanding the roll-back of the controversial and potentially destructive draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020.
Following this, the Delhi Police, on request from Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued notices to prominent environmental groups such as the Indian arm of Greta Thunberg-led 'Fridays For Future' under UAPA (later withdrawn) and IT Act. Websites of these groups have also been blocked.
Guidelines on Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) was formulated in 1994, under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to proactively analyze risks and impacts on the environment due to development projects and provide alternative options and risk mitigation strategies. Adhering to the precautionary as well as polluter-pays principles, the project developers were mandated to conduct EIA to receive environmental permission before commencing any project.
Issues at large
First, the EIA rules have been diluted significantly since its inception, in favour of the business lobbies. Projects have been passed without quality EIA reports and public participation. Over the years, several projects which could potentially damage the environment have been exempted from the EIA rules. Social impacts and cumulative impacts have also been largely disregarded. Due to the absence of mass awareness about EIA, it has been treated only as a bureaucratic barrier by State and corporates and its full potential for realizing sustainable development has remained unfulfilled.
Second, the draft EIA notification 2020 further weakens the vision and process of EIA to ensure 'ease of doing businesses. The proposed changes grant post-facto environmental clearance to already polluting and illegal industries without any penalty; further limit the participation of affected communities and the public in general; exempt various large-scale projects from mandatory EIA such as building construction, area development, highway expansion, oil & gas exploration, irrigation and metallurgical industries.
Despite being rich in its biodiversity and a cultural hotspot, the Northeast states of India are facing several environmental issues. The region is experiencing the highest forest and tree cover loss in India due to land-intensive development projects, such as dams and mining, and internal and external migration due to socio-political conflicts. The region is prone to multiple cycles of heavy floods, grade-v earthquakes and landslides. Further, studies have shown that these states are highly vulnerable to climate change-related impacts. Ecologically sound development is expected in this region, but the government is trying to expedite dam building and large-scale mining of coal, oil & gas in the name of 'national interest'.
The draft EIA notification 2020, through its changes mentioned before, will be disastrous for the region. It will lead to tremendous land and forest conversion without adequate environmental and social safeguards. Spaces for wildlife will be further constricted due to habitat destruction, and hydro-seismic fragility will be further increased. Special constitutional provisions (article 371) for North-eastern states will be violated without public participation, and it will lead to disruption of life, livelihood and local culture. Similar impacts can be envisaged from other states as well.
In this regard, youth-led groups across India are demanding a roll-back of draft EIA 2020 and strengthening of the present EIA process for a secure socio-ecological future.