• M74 Editorial Team

Analyzing India’s Environmental Impact Assessment Draft

By Madesh V V

Rock Beach, White Town, Puducherry, India
Locals enjoying the day at Rock Beach in White Town, Puducherry, India last year. Image provided by Madesh V V.

In India, development often comes at the cost of the environment. There is enough for everyone’s needs, but not enough for everyone’s greed—nor is there enough to justify the corners being cut to satisfy said greed. The consequences of this paradigm are seen in recent boiler explosions that have occurred throughout India due to improper maintenance, deforestation, and the replacement of wetlands with urban settings. Protests against the expansion of copper factories are the empirical evidence of the distaste for this greed—greed we have to pay a “small price” for. India has paid a “small price” until now, but the EIA Draft 2020 (“the Draft”) increases this price.

An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a scientific evaluation of the impact of a project on the environment, and a regulation that restricts industrial and infrastructural projects from being approved without abiding by the required safeguards.

“For us, protection of the environment is an article of faith,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared. “We have natural resources because our previous generations protected these resources. We must do the same for future generations,” he continued. “We have to move towards zero-defect and zero-effect. There must be no defects in production, and no adverse effects on the environment.” However, the Draft favors the interests of industrialists, and does not hold them sufficiently accountable. For instance, a Karur-based company, without obtaining proper license, brought in a consignment filled with ammonium nitrate. In the wake of the Beirut explosion in Lebanon, authorities in Chennai moved this consignment to Hyderabad due to heightened safety concerns. Had the Draft had some teeth, the ammonium nitrate may have either never entered Chennai, or the company may have been held accountable at least.

“Every development policy can be pro-industry, but should never be anti-people and anti-environment,” many environmental activists echo. The Draft proposed by the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change purportedly makes the development process more transparent as it pertains to environmental impacts. Then, why is it so controversial?

The controversy stems from the apparent attempts at silencing public opinion regarding several development areas (such as extractions, effluent treatment plants, highways or expressways, oil and gas exploration, building construction, and area development). The period for public consultation on projects has been reduced from 30 days to 20 days. While this period may still be adequate for the public to voice their concerns, it still represents an attempt to shuffle along projects with reduced scrutiny.

The Draft excludes the public reporting of violations and non-compliance. Violations can only be reported by the government and the project administrators themselves, and then an appraisal committee is set up to examine the alleged violations. The appraisal committee typically implements an Environmental Management Plan (EMP).

Under an EMP, the ecological damage caused by the company is weighed against the economic benefit derived from the project. When a company reports their violations, the appraisal committee will fine 1.5 times the damage assessed. In cases of violations reported by government authorities, the fines are twice as much the damage assessed. Experts and activists alike criticize this approach as regressive, arguing that it fosters non-transparency and incentivizes companies to hide violations.

Industries previously were required to submit compliance reports biannually, which would be reduced in frequency to annually via the Draft. Although the government has introduced penalties for delays in submissions, this action would still lessen corporate oversight. For example, if a copper-smelting project is being carried out in a manner that could contaminate the air and water nearby, a half-yearly compliance report would better address these concerns. Any hazardous activity could be stopped more quickly, reducing harm to nearby populations and the environment.

The EIA Draft 2020 pushes “ex post facto environmental clearances.” What this means is, in practice, industries can start their operations without obtaining prior environmental clearances. If authorities find out that the companies are causing negative impacts on the environment, then they can be shut down. However, in that case, by the time a company is shut down, the damage is already done. This would further weaken environmental protections, as the Supreme Court has reiterated the concept of “ex post facto environmental clearance” is against the fundamental principles of environmental jurisprudence.

All of that said, there are a few areas that could be rethought in order to remove many of the Draft’s blind spots:

  • Removing the ex-post facto clearances would prevent companies from doing irreversible damage. Paying penalties for violations or non-compliance do not undo the damage. The governing party should adopt the position of the Supreme Court before it’s too late, and areas are rendered uninhabitable.

  • Conducting higher-level impact assessments, and raising the standard of assessment, would be a key step towards predicting and preventing potential ecological disasters.

  • Public outcry against detrimental projects needs to be encouraged, not stifled. The people living in the immediate vicinity of potentially hazardous projects have the right to be heard, and it is the responsibility of the government to listen and act accordingly.

It is possible (ideal, in fact) to make the EIA Draft 2020 pro-people and pro-environment, while also pro-industry. The final version of the Draft should be a win-win for all stakeholders, and inhibit bad actors.

Suffice it to say, development should not destroy. The ones bearing the costs of development should be the industrialists, while the government should be monitoring this development, and the people should be reaping the benefits—not polluted crops or undrinkable water.

Madesh V V is an intern at M74. He is pursuing a Master of Business Administration at the College of Engineering, Guindy, in Chennai, India. He’s a people person, an optimist, and a voracious reader.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the M74 Group, which remains neutral on all matters. Publishers assume no liability for content.