“As the north east India has been witnessing serious environmental threats due to rapid industrialisation as well as mining exploration, the citizen of this region should immediately submit their responses and objection to this notification If proper and scientific objections are not filled within the stipulated time, in near future we will have to sacrifice everything of our environment for the sake of development,” says Kishore Kumar Kalita.
Recently on 16th July the Karnataka High Court directed the Union Government of India to consider extending the time for submitting suggestions and objections to the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2020 issued on March 23. The court also observed that as the notification was circulated only in the official gazette and websites, therefore during the pandemic citizens got little opportunity to scrutinize the notification and were deprived of their right to file their objections/ suggestions for such an important notification which is a violation of natural justice. While allowing time extension the Karnataka High Court asked the Centre to give “wide publicity” on the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2020 in all the regional languages. Before this direction the Honb’le Delhi High Court had extended the deadline from June 30 to August 11 and also questioned the notification publication in only two languages.
Though by this new notification the government is pledging a commitment to conduct the whole EIA procedure in a transparent and expedient way, but if go through this draft EIA, then we would find a conflicting position of the regularity and other concerned authorities. We have observed that alike the 1994 notification, the 2006 notification also provided for the EIA to be conducted at the very closing stages of the environmental clearance process. Therefore public got little opportunity to take an active role in the whole procedure. Moreover, apart from diluting the public consultation procedure, the government has also made several amendments to the 2006 notification which has exempted several industries from this important process.
Diluting the Public Consultation: The new notification has stipulated certain time period to complete each stages of public consultation. The Appendix I of the notification has mentioned about the time period for different activities relating to conduct of public hearing which are follows: (i) Finalization of the date, time and exact venue for the conduct of public hearing within ten days of the date of receipt of application; (ii) Advertise the details of public hearing in one major National Daily and one Regional vernacular Daily or Official State Language in another five days from the date of consent of presiding officer. (iii) Notice period of twenty days shall be provided to the public for furnishing their responses; (iv) The SPCB or UTPCC concerned shall sent the public hearing proceedings to the concerned Regulatory Authority within five days of the completion of the public hearing.
So, it is clear that the new notification has reduced time period from 30 days (The 2006 notification provided a minimum of 30(thirty) days notice period to the public for furnishing their responses) to 20 days for the public to submit their responses during a public hearing for any application seeking environmental clearance. It also requires that the public hearing process be completed in 40 days – compared to 45 days under the 2006 notification. The main reason stated for reducing the time is that it would become easy for new investments to complete the formality of EIA.
Moreover the new notification has also waived the importance of public consultation if the agency responsible to conduct the public consultation failed to organise it within the stipulated time as prescribed by this notification. Section 14(8) of the notification has specifically mentioned that if the public agency or authority who is responsible to organise public consultation reports to the Regulatory Authority concerned that owing to the local situation public hearing could not be organised then after due consideration the regularatory authority may decide that the public consultation in the case need not include the public hearing.
Self Compliance: The notification has mentioned about a flawed monitoring mechanism which solely relies on self-compliance. The government is asking for a compliance report to be filed by the project proponent’s themselves. This process would undoubtedly give huge opportunity to the project proponents to submit false and forged information regarding the projects. If the proper verification is not done by a government institution then the project proponents will get abundant room for submitting or uploading information which may be discrepancies. The new notification has also given an extensive time period for submitting compliance report. The previous 2006 notification compelled the project proponent to submit a report every six months, showing that they are carrying out their activities as per the terms on which permission has been given. However, the new notification requires the promoter to submit a report only once every year. Because of the extended reporting time certain irreversible environmental, social or health consequences of the project could go unnoticed. Providing a longer period for filing reports would definitely afford opportunity to the promoter to hide disastrous consequences of a project and in such a situation, the concerned authority will have very little chance to question the promoters for not following the terms of clearance. The only remedy would be to impose a fine or punishment; but that would not invalidate the harmful consequences on the environment.
Extension of exemption: The Supreme Court has observed in Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v Union of India that companies’ are vital for countries’ development, but having regard to pollution, the doctrine of ‘sustainable development’ must be adopted by them as a balancing concept. If final clearance is granted after taking into account the environmental, social, health concerns, then in it can be said that the government is using this process as a tool to ensure sustainability. But instead of adopting a comprehensive and transparent mechanism to inquire about the consequences of a project or activities the new draft has increased the number of projects or activities which do not require an EIA process to be conducted. Alike this notification has also exempted a good number of projects and industries that do not require prior environment clearance or prior environment permission.
Apart from many industries, the new notification has exempted Coal and non-coal mineral prospecting; Industrial Estate (with project area below 500 hectares and not housing any industry of category ‘A’ or ‘B1’ or ‘B2’ project listed in the schedule); Seismic surveys (which are part of exploration surveys for offshore and onshore oil and gas including coal bed methane and shale gas, provided the concession areas have got previous conditions of prior-EC or prior-EP for physical survey); Thermal Power plants( using Waste Heat Recovery Boilers (WHRB) without any auxiliary fuel) etc from prior environment clearance or prior environment permission. As the north east India has been witnessing serious environmental threats due to rapid industrialisation as well as mining exploration, the citizen of this region should immediately submit their responses and objection to this notification If proper and scientific objections are not filled within the stipulated time, in near future we will have to sacrifice everything of our environment for the sake of development.