Criticism of, and demands to junk the proposed EIA or Environment Impact Assessment guidelines proposed have reached fever pitch this week, as August 11 is the last date to submit suggestions and feedback. We look at just why the proposed EIA has been a let down.
In this day and age, almost any major official announcement about the environment is a cause for hope, and anticipation. Hope for better safeguards, hope for more visible steps to protect the environment for our own, and future generations.
India’s Environment Protection Act of 1986 was a response to the world’s biggest industrial disaster till date, the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The mandate was simple. To protect and improve the environment and safeguard the forest flora and fauna across the country. Much has happened since then of course. Not least of which is a population that has grown from just over 80 crores in 1986 to around 138 crores today. A 72 percent increase that has created its own demand, and stress for the country’s natural resources and heritage.
There have been some strong success stories too. From the widely reported success of Project Tiger that helped preserve the big cat and the vast area protected under the scheme, to self sufficiency in food, availability of electricity to an ever higher proportion of the population, the spread of clean cooking and more.
So why the huge protests around the draft EIA rules? Coming 14 years after the last notification of September 2006, it is clear that we know a lot more about the environmental impact of industrial activities on the environment today, something that seems to have been ignored in the proposed changes. Sustainability, or sustainable development, has been the biggest casualty if one looks at the overall provisions. How?
For starters, it was almost inevitable that in the din around GDP numbers, economic growth and creating employment opportunities, the new EIA has become virtually a hostage to economic interests. That was never the mandate of the Environment ministry, and should never be too. The larger the project, the more rules will be bent, seems to be the new mantra. Be it self reporting, or appointing project evaluation consultants at the expense of the firms looking to establish industries in sensitive zones, the rules are simply designed to be gamed. To the detriment of the environment. There is a conscious push to move away from environment experts to economic experts, pushing the short term over the long, or even medium term consequences of these decisions. So much so that the Environment minister has had to be reminded about his priorities, with good reason sometimes.
The involvement of the people likely to be impacted the most, ie, those living in proposed areas for establishing new plants or factories, has been pushed down further. As if the poor experience with our previous so called ‘public consultations’ wasn’t enough.
Exemptions. This is the where the EIA proposals achieve the impossible, by making the environment impact almost irrelevant. Exemptions have been granted to all manner of projects with proven ‘economic’ impact, be it dams (upto 25 MW), inland waterway projects, all oil and gas exploration projects, highway widening upto 100 metres, besides buildings with a ‘purpose’ like education, hospital etc. Does that make them magically good for the environment? The EIA would have you believe it.
Perhaps the most breathtaking proposal is the proposal to allow allow post-facto clearances in sectors as varied as chemicals, mines and more. Thus, a project built without environment safeguards or without getting any environment clearances, will have every chance to survive, if the same skills that got it started in the first place are in place to ‘manage’ the process later. A brazen attempt to legitimise graft and corruption, yet again in the name of development.
Supporters point out that the biggest role in sectors that impact the environment, like mining, river dredging for waterways and oil exploration is played by pubic sector firms. As if that makes it all clean and perfect for the environment. The unfortunate fact, as we have seen in the case of both the Assam gas fire recently (on an area where no environmental permission had been taken for exploration) , or many fields under the world’s biggest coal miner, Coal India limited, the public sector firms, secure in this intrinsic protection from official wrath, have been bigger culprits.
The draft EIA will receive a lot of feedback on doing things better, not least of which will be a call to make the approval process transparent, led by domain experts, and time bound. All perfectly reasonable and possible today, if the will is there. The question is, is it?