On Friday, June 26, the Delhi High Court sought the Environment Ministry’s response on a plea seeking directions for extending the time period for receiving public comments on its draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020, which is being criticised from numerous quarters for its ‘anti- environmental’ provisions. The petitioner, environmental conservationist Vikrant Tongad has recently obtained the ministry’s internal file notings through Right to Information Act (RTI) which revealed that the Union Minister Prakash Javadekar had overruled senior officers’ advice on increasing the deadline for receiving public comments.
A bench of Chief Justice D N Patel and Justice Prateek Jalan issued notice to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and sought its stand by June 29 on whether there was any ambiguity in its notification extending the period for receiving objections and suggestions regarding the EIA 2020.
The petition pointed out that the ministry’s May 8 notification stated that the period for inviting objections has been extended by another 60 days but the deadline was fixed as June 30. “If the sixty-day period commences on the date of the draft notification, i.e., March 23, 2020, the extended date of expiry will be July 18, 2020. If the date of notification in the Gazette (i.e. April 11, 2020) is taken as the start of the sixty-day period, the extended date of expiry will be August 9, 2020,” stated the petition, terming it as unclear and contradictory.
Also read: EIA Notification 2020: Not Now, Not Ever!
Since the draft EIA has been notified, experts, environmentalists, think tanks, tribal communities and student groups, and so on have been opposing the notified rules while pointing out anti-environmental aspects of the notification. Among the controversial new rules are environmental clearances (EC) for industrial projects on post facto basis (i.e., legalisation of ongoing protests without mandatory clearances), no EC for expansion of projects upto 25% and public consultation was taken away for projects intending to expand by 50% and so on.
The RTI Findings
In a note dated April 20, Sharath Kumar Pallerla, a scientist in the environment impact assessment division of the MoEFCC wrote that “the ministry had received 1,190 mails out of which 46 were suggestions and 1,144 were mails requesting the ministry to defer the notification in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In another file noting of April 23, 2020, joint secretary in the ministry, Geeta Menon, has suggested reconsidering the time limit for public feedback. “Numerous representations (over 4,000) have been received by the undersigned also. Since the EIA notification and any change thereto is of great significance to the management of environment in the country as a whole and to the matters of access and utilisation of natural resources, there is some merit in the request to reconsider the time limit of 60 days that has been provided at present in view of the Corona pandemic,” wrote Menon.
Further, the official pointed out in the same noting, “It is submitted that recently, in the context of the Draft Battery waste Management Rules which has a much more limited scope, the Ministry has agreed to extend the time frame for receiving feedback. Accordingly, it is suggested that we may extend the time frame to a total of 180 days from the time of issue, i.e., 23 March, 2020.”
Subsequently, in her file noting dated May 4, Menon wrote, “In response to the Draft EIA notification put up for public consultation, a large number of responses requesting for the Notification to be withdrawn/kept on hold/ extend the time frame for submission of feedback, etc., have been received. Accordingly, as directed, a draft communicating extension of time for feedback by a further period of 60 days from the date of publication in the Gazette i.e 11th April 2020 till 10th August 2020 is placed alongside for approval.” This was agreed upon by the ministry’s additional secretary Ravi Agrawal and environment secretary C K Mishra.
However, Javadekar did not adhere to the officials’ suggestions and fixed the new deadline as June 30 and signed off the file on the matter on May 5, the official documents obtained through RTI reveal.
Growing opposition to EIA
Recently, over 50 students’ unions wrote to Javadekar to hold the EIA notification while alleging that changes it proposes can prove to be "destructive" for the ecology and the people.
In its submission to the ministry, a citizens’ coalition, Build India Back Better, has called the ministry to withdraw the notification. The coalition said in a statement, “The proposed draft EIA will encourage violations to continue to undeterred resulting in an exponential increase in amounts of GHG emissions and other air pollutants released by the industries. If it goes through, it will impact the livelihoods of farmers, fisherfolks and Adivasi communities adversely.”
Also read: Draft EIA Notification 2020: ‘Compilation of Environmental Violations’, Say Activists