Over the past few months, the unexplored paradise has faced some grave environmental consequences. Floods, landslides, earthquakes have been an annual affair, adding to its woes is the Baghjan oil well blowout and then the pandemic. At a time when the region was facing various crisis amid crisis, came the Government’s decision regarding the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020. There is no denying the fact that with the advent of the industrial revolution, the need for economic development has touched every sphere of life. Eventually, the economic priorities have engulfed the need for conservation, thereby affecting lives, livelihood and the environment. Northeast Today writes

The recently proposed draft of the EIA, 2020 by the Central Government has been strongly opposed by environmentalists, student organizations and civil society organizations, from all over the country as well as the Northeastern region of India. The EIA notification 2020, which aims to replace the existing 2006 EIA by altering many of its earlier clauses has been regarded as a regressive draft by several intellectuals. Some of the provisions that come under the ambit of the new draft include diluting the scope of public participation, legalizing post-facto environmental clearance, and removing the requirements of EIA study for several categories of projects, which weakens the provisions of reporting by companies.

If implemented, EIA, 2020, will be applicable across the country, with regards to setting up projects or expansion/ modernisation of existing projects entailing capacity addition. Interestingly, the public feedback window for the new EIA draft was closed on August 11. As the present EIA draft proposes the removal of several activities from the purview of public consultation it has become a matter of great concern for activists and civil society groups in the Northeast too, as issues of environmental damage due to development projects has been dominating the public sphere in the region since a long time. Environmental activists consider the new version as an attempt to weaken environmental regulation and silence affected communities. Hence, the call for a united stand against this draft has been observed in the Northeastern region.

Northeast India, which comprises eight states, i.e. Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura- has been always prone to environmental damages and has already paid big environmental prices in the name of development and modernization.  These states and its people have suffered from big projects related to hydro projects, coal mining, oil extraction, etc. both in the distant and the recent past.

Some of the project expansion plan or clearance is given by the Government has invited public outrage as it may lead to irreparable ecological damage to sensitive biodiversity zones. The National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) reportedly gave clearance for open-cast mining inside the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (part of Dehing Patkai elephant reserve), the Union Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) giving clearance for the extension of drilling and testing of hydrocarbons at seven locations by OIL under the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park area (that includes the Maguri-Motapong wetland area considered crucial for migratory birds) and the go-ahead was given (and subsequently put on hold) for the Etalin mega hydroelectric project at Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, are some of the cases in point.

 

Moreover, at a time, when the  Baghjan blowout and fire incident continues its adverse effect on local ecology and society in Assam and the debate and protest against the illegal coal mining in the Dehing Patkai rainforest dominate the public  domain, conscious citizens of this part of the country are finding it difficult to keep their eyes blind folded on the draft EIA. Both Baghjan and Dehing Patkai crisis provide a perfect example of the diabolical side of the proposed EIA and what it may do to the environment and people of the region if implemented. Unfortunately, taking advantage of the pandemic, the Union Govt. is trying to pass and implement EIA and such other acts, policies, etc. by bypassing public opinion, which is anti-people and anti-environment though profitable for the corporate sector.

The draft EIA aims to legalize environmental violations such as the extraction of oil and gas by big companies without proper environmental clearances and biodiversity impact assessment. It will also challenge the community ownership over resources in parts of Northeast India which is empowered by  Article 371 and the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

Understanding EIA and the objection with it

The EIA is a mechanism that assesses the impact of a newly proposed industrial or infrastructural projects on the environment. It prevents the approval and initiation of any proposed activity/project without proper oversight or taking adverse consequences into account. The main objective of EIA is to identify and evaluate the environmental, social and economic impacts of projects. It predicts the environmental consequences of projects and ensures that the proposed projects are environmentally sound. Hence, it can be regarded as a decision-making tool to determine whether the project should be approved or not.

Image Credit: The News Minute

The draft notification is issued under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to take all such measures for “protecting and improving the quality of the en

vironment.

If we go by the above statement on EIA, it looks people friendly and seems to be for the benefit of citizens of the country and its environment. Then what was the hue and cry around EIA? Actually, the conspiracy lies somewhere else. The draft  EIA has exempted around 40 different projects from prior environment clearance (EC) or prior environmental permission or provision  (EP). These included environment sensitive projects like clay and sand extraction or digging wells or foundations of buildings, solar thermal power plants and common effluent treatment plants.

Moreover, several projects such as all B2 projects, irrigation, production of halogens, chemical fertilizers, 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.

Similarly, it states that for project modernisation and expansion, the norms state that only those projects that involve 25 percent increase will require an EIA and those over 50 percent would attract 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 cognizance 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.

According to the government the draft notification is being brought in to promote ease of doing business by reducing delays in approving project applications and licenses and to make the clearance process more transparent and expedient.

EIA has its origin in the USA. It was first adopted by the USA in 1969. Subsequently, several countries adopted EIA laws. India, however, came up with this law only in 1994, in the form of a notification. The EIA notification was enacted by the Central Government because the Environment Protection Act of 1986 empowered Central Govt to adopt, enact rules, regulations, notifications on several environmental-related matters from time to time. In 2006, the said notification was amended. As per the said notification, there are several stages of EIA, starting from the screening of a project, scoping, public consultation (public hearing is part of it), formulation of EIA. There are primarily two categories of projects under the said law- Category A and B. Under Category B, there are two sub-categories- B1 and B2.

Concern for Northeast

The eight states of the Northeastern part of India is known for its biological and cultural diversity and the unique Brahmaputra and Barak river systems. The region is rich in biodiversity and is home to several wildlife species, such as the rhino, elephant, tiger, wild water buffalo, pigmy hog, and the Gangetic river dolphin. Three out of 34 global biodiversity hotspots cover parts of India: Himalaya, Indo-Burma, and the Western Ghats, and Sri Lanka. Two out of these three, Himalaya and Indo-Burma, cover extensive portions of the Northeast. In just 8 percent of the country’s geographical area, the region is also house 21 per cent of the important bird are identified as per international criteria by the Bombay Natural History Society and Birdlife International.

Image Credit: The News Stuff

The region is comprised of indigenous communities, with a substantial portion of the population dependent on natural resource-based livelihoods. This diversity of communities comes with unique socio-cultural, agro-ecological, and landholding systems.

As such the region being rich in natural resources often faces threat to biodiversity and river ecosystems owing to various developmental projects.

The draft EIA 2020, has been a major cause of concern for this part of the country. This includes– the provisions for post-facto project clearance; dilution and in some cases elimination of the process of public consultation; and re-categorization of projects so as to exempt a wide range of projects from the scrutiny of Appraisal Committees and public consultation/benefits to projects through various clauses.

The Baghjan Oil Well Disaster for instance, has bring forth the grave misconduct of the PSU giant that had been operating for over 15 years without obtaining prior consent from the State Pollution Control Board. The new draft in a way legitimizes such violation, providing a window to get clearance by adding punitive clauses which itself has no mechanism to monitor.

Another drawback under the EIA 2020 is that the issuance of guidelines for the assessment of ecological damage has been solely entrusted upon the Central Pollution Control Board. However, the wildlife institutes, environmental organizations and other civil society groups have been left out of its ambit. Here it becomes important to fathom the fact that ecological damage is about ecology and not limited to pollution. Ecological damage can also result in a reduction in the number of species, destruction of breeding sites and degradation of ecosystems and affect the socio-economic scenario (As had happened in the blowout in Baghjan followed by an inferno).

Clause 22 of the EIA 2020 Draft says: The cases of violation will be appraised by Appraisal Committee with a view to assess that the project has been constructed or carried at a site which under prevailing laws is permissible or expansion has been done, which can be run sustainably under compliance of environmental norms with adequate environmental safeguards;  In case, finding of the Appraisal Committee is negative, closure of the project shall be recommended along with other actions under the law including directions for remediation.

Moreover, since no definition of ‘sustainability’ has been incorporated in the new draft, it could be fairly concluded that a project may run owing to its sustainability, despite causing environmental damage.  As per the guidelines, ‘post-facto approval’ would be done in case the project ‘can be run sustainably’. In a way, projects will be allowed to continue even if they have not obtained Environment Clearance. This amendment fundamentally defeats the purpose of Environment Clearance. The Supreme Court in its April 2020 ruling said “ex post facto clearance is in derogation of fundamental principles of environmental jurisprudence.”

The 2020 draft also spells out how the government will take cognizance of such violations. It has to be reported either by a government authority or the developers themselves. There is no scope for any public complaint about violations. This in itself curtails public participation.

Clause 22 and 23 have been seen as bail outs to offenders who have illegally looted natural resources. In other words, these clauses give license for violators who would be condoned by paying a fine so that they can continue with their activities as it happened in the illegal coal mining case in Saleki inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Project.  Thus it is nothing but post facto legalization of all the illegal acts committed by the project promoters.

 

Exemption of some of the crucial elements will impact the Northeast.

The Northeastern region of India has witnessed a paradigm shift in the name of development. Due to the remoteness of the region economic development has been steadier than the rest of the country. Being an eco-sensitive zone it mostly relied on vast forest resources, agriculture and tourism. However, the changing population dynamics have increased the demand for economic development in the region. To some extent, this development has also exploited the natural resources available abundantly in the Northeast and has reminded that developments without a comprehensive approach have proven to be fatal in many instances.

Hence, to keep a check on the environmental degradation in line with urbanization, industrialization and population growth and the pressure mounted on the natural resources, the EIA came into existence. Nevertheless, the recent amendments to the draft would rather put the region to imperil.

Firstly, the draft has been termed as anti-democratic in nature, as those affected by projects will not be able to complain about the violations, rather only government departments or agencies can bring the violation of environmental laws to the notice of the central government.

Secondly, here people are mostly dependent on the environment for their livelihood. However, according to the draft, there is no consultancy with the local indigenous communities, NGOs, civil society bodies, social activists or political representatives, thereby making it pro-industry rather than pro-people or pro-environment.

Thirdly, despite industrialization in the Northeast, it is not advanced compared to other Indian states, it still survives on the basis of indigenity. If resources of the indigenous people are not guaranteed, it will further lead to chaos. As in the case of the Baghjan blowout, thousands of people have been rendered homeless. This will threaten the peace of the state.

The decision of implementing the Draft during the pandemic was in itself a bad idea. After facing a backlash the Government has made provision for the general public to voice their opinion. However, those people who are immediately dependent on land and natural resources, and don’t have access to smart phones, internet or an E-mail ID how would they voice their opinion? It still remains a question!

Years of militancy, migration, and exploitation of natural resources will have a profound impact on the way of living of the people here in the Northeast who are mostly attached to mother nature. The region, which mostly comprises of tribals co-exist with nature, hence if the Government implement such a regressive draft, it may disturb the peaceful existence of men amid nature.

Image Credit: Udayan Borthakur
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