The draft Environment Impact Assessment 2020 notification brought out by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, aims at diluting the existing EIA notification of 2006 and to make clearances more corporate-friendly.

The notification was released in March, shortly before the national lockdown was announced. No publicity was given to the draft, except that it was uploaded on the ministry’s website. It is arguable if this was the right time to make amendments to the EIA which affects people. The Ministry agreed to translate the draft of the controversial notification in 22 local languages on orders of the Delhi High Court for wider consultation among people across the country, but made an about turn in the Karnataka High Court saying it was not legally required to translate the draft into 22 languages.

This means that millions of Indians who cannot read Hindi or English may remain in the dark about a far-reaching legislation that will significantly impact India’s natural heritage and the health and well-being of the citizens. The Karnataka High Court has warned the Environment Ministry that it will consider staying the draft notification till consultations in local languages by the Union government and its various organisations are completed. Activists argue that by giving a go-by to the precautionary principle on environment by trying to shut down public response to the draft, the notification allows projects that have already violated environmental laws to get clearance by simply paying a fine. The proposed changes display a mindset opposed to environment regulations and consider them as an unnecessary burden on corporate entities.

A Supreme Court Bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi said recently that giving environmental clearance retrospectively to projects that were already underway without seeking such clearance would amount to condoning the operation of industrial activities without EC. In the absence of an EC, there would be no conditions that would safeguard the environment. Moreover, if the EC were to be ultimately refused, irreparable harm would have been caused to the environment. Linear projects such as roads and pipelines in border areas will not require any public hearing. A ‘border area’ is defined as “area falling within 100 km aerial distance from the Line of Actual Control with bordering countries of India.” That would cover much of the Northeast.

Further all inland waterways projects and expansion of national highways will be exempt from prior clearance. This includes roads that cut through forests and dredging of major rivers that are part of the ecosystem. The notification paves the way for implementing projects without concurrence of people or approval of environmental agencies. Besides diluting the existing 2006 EIA notification, the new law would nullify the Environment Protection Act of 1986 which was enacted in the aftermath of the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984, based on the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution that declared protecting and developing the environment as a fundamental duty. The 42nd Amendment itself was necessitated by the outcome of the 1972 Stockholm Conference of the United Nations. The Government would do well to have broad-based consultations before embarking on a step many consider retrograde.