Sejal Mehta emphasises why we must pay attention to the worrisome trend of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) granting environmental clearances to destructive projects during the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown.
This year, we saw an unprecedented crisis tear through the world. COVID-19 swung a wrecking ball into the health of the human race, the economy, and in many countries like ours, unmasked a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. In this turbulent time, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) rolled out a critical new draft of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification (2006) that deals with the health of our natural spaces. So, what is wrong with this picture? A couple of things.
The MoEFCC rolled out the new EIA draft on March 23, 2020.
All new projects, and changes, expansion or modernisation to existing ones – such as construction of roads, irrigation systems, power plants, etc. – are required to get an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, which gauges how the environment could be impacted by them. This forms the basis of getting environmental clearance for the project from the MoEFCC on recommendation of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC).
The fact that this is not an act but a notification, allows for governing bodies to make changes and amendments to this. And it gives the public – that’s you – time to send in comments and suggestions before it is formalised (the deadline for sending in suggestions for EIA 2020 was May 23, but has been extended to June 30).
Well, yes, and that’s why the timing is curious. We are waking up to fresh horrors every day, on sections of society that are struggling to survive – not just from the virus but from starvation, exhaustion, extortion... Even for those lucky enough to have a roof above their head and food to eat, this is a time of extreme uncertainty, with employment layoffs, pay cuts, supplies, aging parents at risk. In other words, we are in the middle of a pandemic. In this foray, a new environmental notification that invites comments and suggestions from the public is just baffling. How can we possibly contribute to something that is going to affect our future, when our present is in such turmoil?
Also – and this is vital – most of the people who should have a say in the new EIA, such as locals who live close to the habitats under risk, are locked down in less than ideal conditions. There is no way to bring this to them. And no activist or lawyer can ever adequately speak for them. They cannot raise their voices under current conditions. At the very least, this draft needs to be pulled back until the lockdown is over.
EIA 2020 has more than a few amendments that are frightening – reducing time for clearances, validating past and future violations, and putting more power in the hands of the people proposing the project than the organisations that are scientifically collating environmental impact data.
Thanks to advocacy and outreach, organisations and lawyers who gathered support for the timing of the EIA, for now, the date has been extended to June 30. These groups are compiling suggestions and concerns to send to the committee, asking for more time, and changes in the existing draft. But it’s time to keep the pressure on to ensure that this stays on track.
Which brings me to a slightly more difficult bit. The lockdown is not the only troubling thing about this picture. There’s more. It’s to do with you and I. How many times do we go a bit further into a news item that’s troublesome for the environment? Perhaps we read of a project threatening a river, we read about the eradication of a coastline for a coastal road, and we think, ‘So sad, we’re killing the environment,’ and then move on to the next item on our social media feed.
This is the weighty age of information and bad news is coming at us like missiles 24/7. We are fatigued, we are tired, we are desensitised. We are barely able to get through our day, without the additional responsibility of something happening far away. But it’s not far away. If this lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that there is a direct, often horrifying connect between what we do to wild spaces and us. The way forward is inclusion, and coexistence, not exclusion and indifference.
States are picking up the pieces after three (avoidable) disasters – the Vizag gas leaks (which showed a serious gap in the environmental clearance process), Raigarh gas leak and the Neyveli Lignite Corporation blast.
As Neha Sinha’s article in Hindustan Times succinctly asks: “The question we ask after every disaster is: Could it have been avoided? An even better question to ask is: How can environmental damage be avoided before it happens? The world after the coronavirus pandemic has shown us that several human-led activities create novel interfaces that further lead to consequences we can’t control, such as viruses caused by the disturbance to wildlife. We are also seeing how pristine the environment is without our interventions. The images released by NASA reveal that the air over the northern Gangetic plain is the cleanest it has been in 20 years. This clear view gives us a chance to plan projects in a way that actively protects the environment rather than “balances” it against political goals.”
So, engage. Mainstream newspapers are carrying more environmental reportage than ever before. Ask questions, even if it’s on your social media feeds. Follow the MOEFCC on Twitter and Instagram closely. Follow Sanctuary's campaigns on our Instagram handle.
How does this matter to you? It does - fires burning far from you are still fires, and they're killing innocent people for no fault of their own. It would be a shame if we cared only for the ones that burned in our backyard, and truth be told, that's not too far away either if unplanned development that commits the crime of ignoring science and environmental consequence is allowed to go on - by us. It's time to make some noise. Don’t look away from a piece of news just because you don’t understand the ramifications of a policy document. Don’t think, ‘Oh, the people in charge are looking at it, I am sure.’ But that’s the thing. You’re also in charge, see? You’re the public.
Sejal Mehta is an independent writer/editor who has been published in leading newspapers and magazines including Lonely Planet Magazine, National Geographic Traveller India, and Nature inFocus. She is currently Editor, Marine Life of Mumbai.