Draft EIA 2020: Striking a middle ground

Avinash Mishra/Namrata Singh Panwar | Updated on August 30, 2020

Balancing act for all-round prosperity

It does not encourage environmental violations, but rather promotes quick development clearances along with strict monitoring

Never has there been a greater need to make India self-reliant, to look inwards and turn the light on local manufacturers and service providers. An Atmanirbhar Bharat will be able to successfully survive the jolts of any black swan event that might emerge in the future. It will also boost exports and reduce dependence on imports. To realise Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goal of a self-reliant Bharat, the government is taking serious steps towards reviving industries and building infrastructural facilities. Investment in infrastructural projects will infuse money into the economy and generate employment.

However, many a time, these projects get held up due to environmental clearances, which can take five-six years. This not only delays and inflates the process of project implementation but also has a negative impact on the ease of doing business. At times, it also affects the overall significance of the project — a scheme envisaged five-six years ago may not hold the same salience today.

One cannot hope to protect the environment from unwarranted exploitation by simply delaying a project for five-six years and not giving timely clearances. The current economic situation demands brisk decision-making, quick clearances but with strict monitoring. Consequently, the new draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 was introduced. The notification has attracted a bit of criticism.

Checking violations

Activists object that the notification will enable post-facto appraisal of projects involving violations — where construction has begun or expansion or modernisation carried out without clearance — which might encourage more violations. But the notification intends to formalise irregularities made by violators for proper monitoring.

It specifically mentions that cases of violations will be appraised by an committee. The appraisal committee will assess if the project has been constructed or carried out at a site permissible under prevailing laws, and/or the expansion that has been done can run sustainably under the compliance of environmental norms with adequate safeguards. In case the committee finds a project to be in violation of regulations, it will recommend that the project be closed, along with other actions under law.

This measure intends to bring violators under the purview of scrutiny and monitoring so they can be made to compensate either for the damage already done or to ensure nil-to-minimum damage in the future. Moreover, these approvals are prospective and not retrospective in nature, which means they will not encourage future violations.

The notification defines three categories of projects — A, B1, and B2 — founded on their social and economic impacts and the geographical extent. Those under the B2 category, which are high-impact developmental projects, are exempted from the process of public consultation, but would still need environmental clearance and environmental permission or provision. This has been done to avoid cost inflations and delays in implementation of such high-impact projects.

These apart, around 40 low-polluting and high-employment generating project categories — micro-enterprises; clay and sand extraction, digging of wells or foundations of buildings; solar thermal power plants; desilting of village ponds or tanks; construction of village roads, ponds, bunds undertaken under the MGNREGS and other government programmes; dredging and desilting of dams, reservoirs, weirs, barrages, rivers and canals for the purpose of their maintenance, upkeep and disaster management; common effluent treatment plants — are exempted from environmental clearance and permission or provision.

Focus on monitoring

A practical policy will always try to strike a balance between preserving the environment and achieving prosperity for the citizens of a country. By expediting the clearance process for developmental projects while strengthening the monitoring mechanism of cleared projects, the draft EIA notification has sought to strike a balance between these two poles. Even after this, if the community has any apprehensions, the notification provides for appeal against a clearance granted at the National Green Tribunal.

This notification has brought about a paradigm change by shifting focus to the monitoring of approved projects. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is also developing a mechanism to ensure strict and regular monitoring, with heavy sanctions on violators.

A middle path must be found where a developed country can coexist with a healthy environment. The current notification seeks to do away with delays without compromising environmental norms. It has to be supplemented with the willingness to protect the environment through strict monitoring and heavy penalties for non-compliance.

Mishra is Adviser (Environment & Forest) and Panwar is Consultant,

NITI Aayog. Views are personal

Published on August 30, 2020

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