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India blocks websites opposed to regressive environmental law

India responds to environmental groups opposing plans to dilute Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations by shutting their websites down.

Last month, the websites of three environmental advocacy groups in India were blocked. Let India Breathe (LIB), Fridays for Future (FFF) and There Is No Earth B stated that their platforms were “rendered inaccessible” in response to their online campaigns opposing the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, a revision of a previous law that would seriously undermine environmental protections. Among other things, the websites were allowing people to formally file objections to the draft law; the deadline of this public consultation was initially set for the 30th of June, then extended to the 11th of August by the Delhi High Court due to the pandemic.

Environmental websites blocked

It has come to light that the decision was prompted by a complaint on the part of Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, and a letter was sent to FFF citing the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, whose violation could potentially entail life imprisonment, accusing the organisation of “disturbing the peace and sovereignty of India” by “sending too many emails”. While this letter was eventually withdrawn and, at the time of writing, the websites have been restored following a public outcry, digital censorship and the invocation of anti-terror laws such as the one just cited (albeit temporarily) speaks of a more sinister intention. Not only this, individuals who have voiced their protest against the EIA draft have also faced personal attacks, threats and political pressure.

The social media handles of all three groups were still functioning but their websites were blocked. “We had a sample email (opposing the notification, ed.) which people could refer to on our website and there was also a lot more detail on the issue,” says lawyer and FFF Executive Director Apar Gupta. “We also had a tool kit about what people could do to oppose the draft EIA”.

LIB founder Yash Marwah, a 25-year-old media professional, says the website is a huge awareness portal for many environmental issues. “We broke down a lot of environmental jargon and simplified it for others. While it is disheartening that the website has been blocked, we realise that clearly what we’re doing was making enough of a difference for it to be blocked. We are a volunteer-based organisation, with mostly students,” he points out.

Coal mining In India
Coal mining In India © Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images

What is an Environmental Impact Assessment

The draft reflects a mindset that sees environmental regulation as an unnecessary regulatory burden and not as an essential obligation to be met for the health and welfare of our people and for ensuring development that is sustainable.

Jairam Ramesh, former Environment Minister of India

An Environmental Impact Assessment is the process or study which predicts the effect of a proposed industrial or infrastructural project on the environment, conducted prior to the decision to move forward with the proposed action. It takes stock of the potential risks and grants approvals with certain pre-determined conditions to mitigate them over the course of the project. Companies are supposed to abide by these conditions, supplying compliance reports to government bodies in a timely manner, with the government monitoring implementation through performance reports and site visits in some cases.

Under the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986, India finalised its first EIA norms in 1994. This set a legal framework to regulate activities which utilise and impact natural resources. Each new development project has to go through the EIA process to get environmental clearance. The new draft EIA notification seeks to amend the 2006 modification of the 1994 norms. However, experts say most of the provisions are a regressive departure from the earlier version.

India’s contentious EIA draft

So what, specifically, are the issues with the new draft? Firstly, it allows post facto clearance, which means any project without prior environmental approval can still carry out operations. Hence, those that are currently operating in violation of the Environment Act will now be able to apply for clearance retroactively. Violators must simply provide two plans for remediation and resource augmentation corresponding to 1.5 to two times “the ecological damage assessed and economic benefit derived due to violation”.

For such late applications, developers would have to pay just 2,000 to 10,000 Rupees (26 to 133 US dollars) per day for the period of delay. When this change was put forth to the Supreme Court of India in April, it ruled that “ex post facto environmental clearances” are contrary to law. “Environment law can’t countenance the notion of an ex post facto clearance,” it notes. “This would be contrary to both the precautionary principle as well as the need for sustainable development”.

Secondly, the new draft exempts some projects from conducting an EIA, including those that the government categorises as “strategic”, about which no information would need to be made available in the public domain. While projects concerning national defence and security are naturally considered strategic, the government could use its discretionary powers to tag anything with this label and therefore give a free pass to bypass clearances.

Thirdly, the EIA draft stipulates that violations can’t be reported by citizens but only by a government representative or the project proponent – meaning that it would rely on the violators themselves disclosing whether they broke the law.

Fourth, it cuts down the public consultation time around projects from thirty to twenty days, which is inadequate to conduct the process in a transparent and efficient manner. This would prove cumbersome for indigenous tribes, for instance, as they would be expected to assess the project, understand the EIA report – which may not even be in their local language – and summarise all the key points, including sending written submissions, within under three weeks. Clearly, the new rule would weaken the principle of public participation and silence citizens’ voices.

Fifth, linear projects such as roads and pipelines in border areas wouldn’t require any public hearing; meaning those in an “area falling within 100 kilometres aerial distance from the Line of Actual Control with bordering countries of India”. Therefore, much of the Himalayan belt would suffer devastating consequences due to these dilutions. Other projects like inland waterways projects, the expansion and widening of national highways, and construction projects with an area of up to 150,000 square metres (compared to 20,000 square metres previously) would also be exempt from prior clearance.

India’s poor environmental and social record

There are a number of issues regarding India’s existing EIA processes to begin with. While on paper the laws are robust, they suffer from a poor monitoring and implementation system. Often, reports compiled by third party-consultants at the behest of project proponents are either of low quality or biased. Moreover, India is already facing the brunt of environmental and social damage because of companies that don’t have the necessary clearances, most recently seen in the case of the LG Polymers gas leak in the southeastern city of Vishakhapatnam.

Another spill occurred at state-owned Oil India Limited’s natural gas well located in Baghjan in the northeastern state of Assam due to expansion processes conducted there that led to a massive fire. This blowout will cause long-lasting toxicity for humans, animals and birds in this region. In particular, the well is situated next to biodiversity hotspot Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, as well as wetlands. It is shocking to know that the EIA report for this project, prepared by one of India’s top consulting firms, predicted the risk of a blowout to be “negligible”.

In addition, the Ministry of Environment has been speedily approving projects, even via video conferences, during the Covid-19 lockdown under the garb of “ease of doing business”. All this doesn’t bode well for a country both at the tip of its development phase and one of the most vulnerable to climate change. At a time in which nations should be looking to transform the pre-coronavirus status quo, the draft EIA would be a colossal step back especially as attempts to stop it are being undemocratically quashed.

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