Explained: What is EIA 2020? How does it water down the existing policy?

Many activists have called the new EIA “anti-environment” and “pro-industries”

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Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's statements on Sunday have raked up many concerns surrounding the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 notification. "The 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. Not only does it have the potential to reverse many of the hard-fought gains that have been won over the years in the battle to protect our environment, it could potentially unleash widespread environmental destruction and mayhem across India,” Gandhi said.

Gandhi merely echoed what activists, environmental groups, biologists and students have been saying for a few months for now. They claim that the notification is “anti-people”, “anti-environment” and “pro-industries”.

But what is so controversial about the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020, proposed by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) that seeks to replace the current notification that goes back to 2006 under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986? 

What is EIA?

An EIA is an important process for evaluating the likely environmental impact of a proposed project. It makes a scientific estimate of the likely impacts of a project, such as a mine, irrigation dam, industrial unit or waste treatment plant. It is a process whereby people’s views are taken into consideration for granting final approval to any developmental project or activity. It is basically, a decision-making tool to decide whether the project should be approved or not.

The draft notification is issued under the powers vested in the central government under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to take all such measures for “protecting and improving the quality of the environment.

According to the government, the new notification is being brought in order to make the process more transparent and expedient by the implementation of an online system, further delegation, rationalisation and standardisation of the process. However, the environmentalist said that the draft will further dilute the EIA process.



What's controversial about EIA 2020?

The new draft has been proposed with the aim of making processes more transparent and expedient. But in effect, the draft proposes the removal of several activities from the purview of public consultation.

The notification envisages two kinds of approval—prior environment clearance (EC) with the approval of expert committees and environmental permission or provision (EP) without the approval of expert committees.

One of the main causes of concern is that the draft has exempted almost 40 different projects such as clay and sand extraction or digging wells or foundations of buildings, solar thermal power plants and common effluent treatment plants are exempted from prior EC or prior EP.

Several projects such as all B2 projects, irrigation, production of halogens, chemical fertilisers, acids manufacturing, biomedical waste treatment facilities, building construction and area development, elevated roads and flyovers, highways or expressways are exempted from public consultation.

The projects under the B2 category include offshore and onshore oil, gas and shale exploration, hydroelectric projects up to 25 MW, irrigation projects between 2,000 and 10,000 hectares of command area, small and medium mineral beneficiation units, small foundries involving furnace units, some categories of re-rolling mills, small and medium cement plants, small clinker grinding units, acids other than phosphoric or ammonia, sulphuric acid, micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in dye and dye intermediates, bulk drugs, synthetic rubbers, medium-sized paint units, all inland waterway projects, expansion or widening of highways between 25 km and 100 km with defined parameters, aerial ropeways in ecologically sensitive areas, and specified building construction and area development projects.

Undoubtedly, the public outcry is over apprehensions that the exemption from EIA and public consultation for listed B2 category activity and expansion and modernisation projects will seriously affect the environment, since these will be carried out without oversight.

In addition, the notice period for public hearing has been cut from 30 days to 20 days. This will make it difficult to study the draft EIA report, more so when it is not widely available or provided in the regional language.

Similarly, for project modernisation and expansion, the norms require only those involving more than 25 per cent increase requiring EIA, and over 50 per cent attracting public consultation. The validity period of environmental clearance has been increased for mining, river valley and other projects. 

The EIA Notification 2020 excludes reporting by the public of violations and non-compliance. Instead, the government will take cognisance of reports only from the violator-promoter, government authority, Appraisal Committee or Regulatory Authority. Such projects can then be approved with conditions, including remediation of ecological damage, which, again, will be assessed and reported by the violator (and not an unconnected agency), although Central Pollution Control Board guidelines must be used.

In short, the new draft rules might seem to favour the interests of the project proponent by whittling down public consultations, accepting flawed and faulty EIA reports resulting from external influences, and ignoring the non-renewable nature of resources. 

History of EIA in India

The concept of EIA has its roots in the US. Embracing the neoliberal policies in the 1970s, the US passed environmental laws to include scientific assessment and public participation while taking important environmental decisions.

In India, the EIA process was founded by the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act, 1970. Most of the nations in the world have implemented EIA. On one side, it acts as a key to control the activities of private entities. On the other hand, it is a prerequisite for grants or loans by international financial institutions.