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Decoding the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020

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The government of India has recently proposed a draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 in order to ease some environment restrictions for economic development. This comes in the light of the government’s efforts to revive the economy which has crashed after the COVID-19 outbreak. The controversial legislation is proposed by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) which lays down an important procedure of evaluating the likely environmental impact of a proposed project.
The process of evaluating environmental impact generally involves public consultation. The new notification has made significant changes in this process which have garnered the attention of many environmental activists across the country. It has also led to protests in the northeastern region with demands to withdraw the notification to preserve the biodiversity and respect the eco-sensitive areas of northeast India. In this regard let us look at the key provisions of the EIA notification 2020.

Availability of Post-Facto Approval for projects

EIA notification 2020 allows for post-facto approval for projects. This essentially increases the power of corporates as well as the executive bodies who seek to carry out developmental projects in eco-sensitive areas as they can start the project without securing environmental clearances. Thus any environmental damage caused by the project is likely to be waived off as the violations get legitimised.
While such a damaged will be punished or penalised, it would not reverse the detrimental consequences on the environment.

Amendments in the Public Consultation Process

The availability of public consultation process provided the people with 30 days to consider a project before sharing their views on any application seeking environmental clearance prior to EIA notification 2020. The draft notification, however, seeks to amend the time period to 20 days. The danger is that if adequate time is not given for the preparation of views, comments and suggestions to those who would be affected by the project, then such public hearings would not be meaningful. And unless a public hearing is meaningful, the whole EIA process would lack transparency and credibility.
Furthermore, the reduction in time period would create a major problem in areas where information is not easily accessible or in areas where people are not that well aware of the process itself.

Easing the Checks and Balances

The 2006 EIA notification required for the entity undertaking the project to submit a report every six months. The project proponent was made accountable to the public regarding their activities being carried out as per the terms on which permission had been given. However, the new draft requires the proponent to submit a report only once every year.

Bypassing EIA Process

The draft notification empowers the central government to categorise projects as “strategic.” Once a project is considered as strategic, the draft notification states that no information related to such projects shall be placed in the public domain. Further, the draft notification states that the new construction projects up to 1,50,000 square metres (instead of the existing 20,000 square metres) do not need “detailed scrutiny” by the Expert Committee, nor do they need EIA studies and public consultation.
EIA notification 2020 has re-ignited the debate of environment vs development. While one may criticise the government over disregarding the environment, it is important to note that the country is facing all-time high employment which is going beyond 20 per cent. If some drastic steps are not taken to revive the economy, millions of people in the country will be pushed into poverty, hunger, joblessness and starvation. At such a time, economic development does take precedence. However, it cannot come at the cost of irreparable damage to the environment. Because this, in a longer run, is detrimental to human existence.