A group of 63 former bureaucrats on Sunday wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and environment minister Prakash Javadekar, asking them to withdraw the proposed Environmental Impact Assessment Policy 2020 and replace it with a more public and habitat-friendly policy.
“It is clear that what the amended policy [EIA] really intends to do is to considerably dilute the existing process of granting environment clearances and to prevent any public scrutiny of the project proponents’ actions,” the former officers said in their letter. “Many of the changes have, in fact, been proposed to circumvent the past decisions of the National Green Tribunal and the Courts.”
The signatories of the letter alleged that the government had no intention of acting on public objections to the draft EIA. “It is obvious from the fact that the draft notification was available only in English and Hindi and was only on the Ministry’s website until 30 June, and, despite requests that more time should be given for responses, due to the ongoing pandemic, no heed was paid to such requests,” the signatories said. “It was only when the Court stepped in that the last date for receiving responses was extended from 30 June to 11 August 2020 and the draft policy was directed to be made available in 22 languages.”
Last month, the Delhi High Court had rebuked the Centre for not addressing the ambiguity in its order to extend time granted for submission of objections to the proposed EIA till June 30. The court said the Centre’s May 8 notification about extension mentioned a “further period” of 60 days and also said that the window to file objections would close on June 30. The court had passed the order to the deadline for the filing of objections on environmental conservationist Vikrant Tongad’s petition.
The signatories also expressed concern over changes proposed in the draft EIA policy, which they said would be detrimental to the environment. “Some of the more serious changes that the proposed EIA policy contemplates are: (a) grant of post facto approval to projects which may have started, or increased in size, without prior environmental clearance on payment of a penalty,” the signatories said. “This makes nonsense of the requirement of prior clearance.”
“Reclassifying projects and activities to put several polluting ones such as thermal power, cement and chemical fertilizer plants into a category (B2) which require minimal scrutiny; (c) excluding the need for public consultation for a number of projects where such consultation was earlier necessary - this includes all building, construction and area development projects, and anything declared ‘strategic’ by the government; (d) where such consultation is still necessary, reducing the time available to the public to make objections; (e) specifying that no reports regarding violation of the conditions of environmental clearance will be entertained from anyone other than the project proponent or a government authority,” they added.
The former officers pointedly told the Centre that it cannot consider itself or be an owner of natural resources. “It [the government] is a trustee on behalf of the people whose ‘commons’ these resources are,” they said. “The right to a clean, green and healthy environment is a part of our Fundamental Rights under Article 21 of the Constitution; and the dilution of regulations, policies and procedures aimed at protecting the environment contravenes these rights.”
Documents accessed through Right to Information Act applicants last month showed that Javadekar had overruled the recommendations of senior officials from his ministry to extend the time frame for public feedback on the draft EIA policy.
Javadekar fixed the deadline to seek public comments and objections to the proposal for June 30, instead of August 10. The new updates, which seeks to overhaul the existing EIA 2006, prescribe the procedure for industries to assess the ecological and environmental impact of their proposed activity and the mechanism whereby these would be assessed by expert committees appointed by the environment ministry.
The Centre’s new notification, officially available online on March 23, gave a 60-day period for public consultation. The time frame for comments was extended to June 30 due to the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus.