As protests over the dilution of environmental norms are being organised across India, the stakeholders bearing the brunt of the draft EIA are struggling to find their voice, having to take legal recourse.
Maharashtra-based organisation Kisan Manch had to knock on the doors of the National Green Tribunal in July pointing out that the public hearings conducted by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) on the Zoom [video conferencing] application, organised at the assembly halls of each District Collector, were in complete violation of lockdown orders issued by the state as well as the central government.
MPCB had stated that the public hearings would be conducted through Zoom app if people were unable to assemble at the assembly hall on the designated dates.
It was submitted by the Kisan Manch that the sole motive of filing the application was to protect the environment by ensuring that the public hearings, as mentioned in the EIA Notification, be conducted in a fair and just manner and that their purpose not be defeated.
While the NGT has directed the board to conduct public hearings in compliance with the norms, farmers’ rights stand to be compromised.
Public participation: A dispensable option?
With the introduction of the draft EIA rules 2020, the central government has formalised the process of normalising the exemption of the public hearing process—a crucial stage in receiving an environmental clearance. The public hearing is a mandatory requirement under Rule 5 of the Environment Protection Rules and is a serious event in the public consultation process.
Speaking to NewsClick, Pratap Goswami, the petitioner in the case, said, “The government said that we should do the public hearing through the online app. The farmers and the main stakeholders could not participate in this process. The rights of our people, the farmers, is being taken away because of this. There are logistical problems as well. Our rights are getting trampled upon.”
He added, “If the COVID situation does not improve then stop the projects. Why should our voices be suppressed? The order does not say too much, but it does underline that the process of the public hearing needs to be followed.”
The organisation claims to be taking on the sand mining in the sand ghats of the region.
Speaking to NewsClick, environmental lawyer with the Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment (LIFE) Rahul Choudhary said, “As far as the judgment is concerned, it has completely missed the point. The law that provides for public hearings near the site also states that public consultation involves a process of confidence building. Exemption from public hearing during the pandemic and shifting it to Zoom, just because we need development, is contrary to the EIA notification. The problems [in participating] include accessing the link, connectivity in rural areas… The organisers can mute the audio at their own wish and may not allow participants to speak. And also there is a limit on the number of people who can join.”
Through the draft EIA, collusion between the industry and the regulator is now evident as Clause 14(2) of the draft notification, which is still at the stage of public comments, exempts public consultation for projects including modernisation of irrigation projects, all building, construction and area development projects, inland waterways, expansion or widening of national highways, and all projects concerning national defence and security or involving “other strategic considerations”.
Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadkar has claimed that draft EIA notification does not relax the process of public hearing, but aims to make it more meaningful. However, activists are highlighting how the draft rules make the stakeholders’ views and objections dispensable.
Speaking to NewsClick, environmental researcher Kanchi Kohli said, “Any law, policy or guideline is only a reflection of the intent of the government. Public participation and consent-based approvals are being treated as an option which can be dispensed with or needs to be being ticked off in files through mechanisms such as digital or zoom app hearings.”
Also read: Public Hearings During COVID-19, the Gujarat Way