New Draft of EIA Will Endanger India's Wildernesses

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 40 No. 6, June 2020

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.  

What was this draft?  

The MoEFCC rolled out the new EIA draft on March 23, 2020.

What is an EIA?  

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).  

What does it have to do with you?

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).  

Wait, isn’t the public on lockdown?  

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.  

What are the problems, though, with this EIA? Why should you be concerned?  

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.

  • After this edition went to press, India saw a spate of disasters that reiterated how project clearances that ignore scientific data are catastrophic in their consequences.
    On May 27, gas started leaking from an Oil India Limited oil well in Baghjan Assam. From May 27 to June 9, the gas continued to leak, causing toxicity to the air. On June 9, it caught fire, causing more than 2,500 people who lived around a kilometre from the site to literally run for their lives, and evacuate their homes. The site is less than a kilometre from Dibru Saikhowa National Park and only 500 metres from the wetland Maguri-Motapung Beel. The loss to biodiversity there, and to the land itself, is staggering. What does this have to do with clearances?

    Well, just last month, Oil India Limited received environment clearance from the MOEFCC to carry out drilling and testing of hydrocarbons in seven locations under the national park.
  • The last month has seen a massive movement against projects that are poised for disasters in the future: Dibang valley, Dihing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, Mollem National Park, and investigations are on at the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary as we speak. 
  • Only those areas notified as eco-sensitive zones by the  MoEFCC will be recognised.
    Your national parks, Protected Areas and sanctuaries might not be affected (although they also have troubling amendments about their buffer zones), but wild spaces like shores, coastlines and urban spaces, rivers, bird sites (like the flamingo habitat images from Mumbai that you have been sharing), will be extremely vulnerable. As we speak, Dibang valley in Arunachal Pradesh has become a battlefield with locals and environmentalists gathering public support relentlessly to protect it from the effects of a proposed hydropower project, which, if allowed clearance, will involve the felling of over 2.7 lakh trees.  

    But whenever we speak about the felling of trees – be it Arunachal or Mumbai, remember that it isn’t just about the trees, yes? It is about the soil, the canopies, the species that depend on them for survival, the ground, the rocks. It is the health of a valley, not just the trees in it. What makes an ecosensitive zone eligible for notification, really?  
  •  A vital part of an EIA is a public hearing, where people who live around the proposed project, and could be impacted by it, are allowed to give their inputs and concerns.  
    This has been removed for certain significant industries. If there is local resistance to a polluting project – those voices will not matter.

    According to Mongabay, “The draft said public consultation is exempted for projects, including modernisation of irrigation projects, all building, construction and area development projects, inland waterways, expansion or widening of national highways, all projects concerning national defence and security or involving ‘other strategic considerations’ as determined by the central government, all linear projects like pipelines in border areas and all the offshore projects located beyond the 12 nautical miles.”  

So, what now?  

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.   

Advocacy and policy will ensure the rules are laid down. But outreach, and your active interest and participation are the coal to that fire. So, what can you do? Niraj Bhatt, Researcher – Environment and Climate Action and part of the Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG), lists it down for you:

a) Help organisations and activists de-jargonise and demystify the EIA notification and the process.  
b) Talk to your friends and family about this. Do for them what this article did for you. Simplify things and request their involvement.  
c) If you care for individual projects (Aarey colony, Dibang valley, Hubbali Ankola railway line, the Mumbai Coastal Road), understand that these projects would not have reached this battle stage, if we had a strong EIA in the first place. So, fight for a stronger EIA and fight many such projects at once.  
d) Sign petitions to the government asking for withdrawing the draft.  
e) Make this a mainstream issue by being persistently interested and engaged.  
f) Write (postcards/emails) to your local representative (MLA/MP) to let them know you care for the environment and want him/her to speak on your behalf against such subordinate legislation, which has a far-reaching impact on India’s environment and forests. This works more often than you’d think.  
g) If you use social media, create ‘twitterstorms’ or participate in the ones organised by others and tweet to the PM, environment minister, and chief ministers of states. You’d be surprised how often this has prompted action. 
h) If you see something wrong, write (postcards/emails) to the CM of your state to tell him/her you do not want dilution of environmental laws in your state and that the state government convey your message to the Central government. If enough of us do this, it will work.  

How can you be part of a public hearing that concerns you?
Participate in public hearings in your neighbourhood; write to Expert Appraisal Committees (EACs) with your questions/ suggestions for projects (the details of past and upcoming meetings are published on this website.)



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.

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