MoEFCC’s Amendments-By-Memo Imperil Ecological and Human Health

  • The environment ministry has made several changes to the EIA Notification 2006 that make it easier for proponents to expand projects without seeking additional permissions.
  • Other notifications have proposed that environment clearances for some projects should be valid for longer while others will be entirely exempt from them.
  • The changes have been pushed through without consultation, and will reduce or restrict opportunities for the people affected to oppose existing projects.

Kochi: Expanding some developmental projects will no longer require fresh public consultations. And some environmental clearances – including for mining projects – will be valid for more time, while some projects will be entirely exempt from them.

These are some changes that the Union environment ministry has made or proposes to make under the 2006 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification. They dilute existing environmental safeguards and will negatively affect local ecology and the environment in several ways, biologists said.

Policy experts also have problems with the way the ministry has pushed some of these changes forward – through office memoranda, for example – and thus opening them to legal problems.

Clearances and consultations

Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav, August 12, 2021. (Photo by: Press Information Bureau)

Environmental clearances play a vital role in safeguarding the environment. The law spells out procedures to obtain the government’s permission for new projects and to expand existing ones – especially those that could harm the environment.

In India, these clearances fall under the purview of the EIA 2006 notification. This instrument specifies which projects require EIAs, the process to obtain clearances through EIAs and so on. Currently, more than 30 types of projects require such clearances.

There are four steps a project proponent must take to obtain an environmental clearance. One of them is public consultations. Here, government representatives, project proponents and the public at large participate to provide comments and suggestions, local communities voice their concerns, and everyone assesses whether the project has followed legally mandated protocols.

But according to a new office memorandum published by the environment ministry on April 11, some existing ‘development’ projects will be freed from this step. Proponents of those projects to be expanded by up to 50% in capacity won’t have to seek a new public consultation.

These projects include mines, ports and harbours, and roads.

Public hearings that are part of EIAs must be treated as sacrosanct and not be removed for any developmental project, Anup Prakash, scientific advisor to the Vanya Wildlife Trust, said. They “ensure that the views of the people are taken into account, which helps make projects sustainable in terms of output and benefits to people.”

According to Debadityo Sinha, a policy researcher at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Delhi, the office memorandum is also more of an amendment in the way it has been pushed forward. And ironically, being a memorandum, it is not open to comments from the public.

“Exempting or relaxing a statutory process by way of an [office memorandum] is impermissible and ultra vires to the parent act, the Environment Protection Act 1986,” he told The Wire Science.

Longer validity

Representative image showing preparations being made to mine iron ore in Goa, 2020. (Photo by: Reuters)

Another notification on April 12 from the environment ministry extended the validity of clearances for some projects. Specifically, clearances for mining projects are currently valid for up to 30 years, according to EIA 2006. But according to the new notification, this could be extended to 50 years if an expert appraisal committee examines it every five years after the first 30.

Clearances for river valley projects currently expire after 10 years but will henceforth expire after 13 years. Those for nuclear power plants will last up to 15 years.

The ministry’s stated reasons for this extension are the time taken to address “local concerns including environmental issues”, including delays in obtaining forest clearances, land acquisition and “local issues, rehabilitation and resettlement”.

But to environmental policy researcher Meenakshi Kapoor, the amendment “clearly serves business interests” because “an increased duration of clearance validity will be attractive for investors”.

According to a tweet by Kapoor and researcher Krithika Dinesh, the amendment changes the rules in a way that the draft EIA notification of 2020 envisaged. This draft brooked heavy criticism from scientists, policy experts and activists because it significantly diluted environmental safeguards.

The Environment Protection Rules 1986 state that while the Union government can notify changes in processes or operations by listing them in the Official Gazette, it has to “give notice of its intention to do so”. But ironically, the new notification stated that the government has dispensed with the “requirement of notice” in “public interest”.

Some projects exempt from clearances

View of a thermal power plant in Haryana. (Photo by: Vikramdeep Sidhu/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The only ministry document that called for public comments was published in the gazette on April 11. It proposed several changes related to environmental clearances, including exempting them completely for some projects. One change, for example, proposed to exempt clearances for larger biomass-based power plants (up to 25 MW, versus 15 MW before) or municipal-waste-based power plants. The ministry claims this will “encourage” eco-friendly fuel mixes. It won’t.

For example, due to reasons including a shortage of alternative fuel stock, thermal plant operators in Punjab are unable to comply with the National Green Tribunal’s orders to use even 5-10% of biomass pellets alongside coal for power generation.

Another change the draft notification proposes is to exempt all highway projects within 100 km of the line of control (LOC) or international borders from clearances. Such projects will follow a generic standard operating procedure (SOP) notified by the respective authorities “from time to time”.

But the ecologies of border areas are too unique for a generic SOP to work, Sinha said.

“Places like Dachigam [in Jammu & Kashmir], Buxa along the Bhutan border, the Sunderbans, all are hotspots of biodiversity supporting numerous endemic species. Projects in these areas have to have environmental clearance regardless of how near the LoC they are.”

According to Prakash, recent calamities in some of these tracts, such as February 2021 floods in Chamoli, which is in the same state as the controversial Char Dham project, have shown that any development along our frontiers has to be “well thought out – foremost of the aspects being ecological integrity”.

Consequences and consequences

Mountainsides being blasted off and cleared to make way for the Char Dham highway. (Photo by: PTI)

Many of these proposed changes will affect ecology and conservation in several ways. Particularly, it “substantially weakens the ‘precautionary principle’ that forms the bedrock of our environmental policies,” Prakash said.

The principle states that if an action or policy is at risk of harming the environment or the people, we should err on the side of caution and not implement it. The environment ministry’s proposed and implemented changes disagree, however.

“Seemingly incremental changes, such as increasing the threshold capacity of [thermal power plants] and exempting highway projects in border areas from clearances, have substantial impacts on the biodiversity and human health around the projects,” Prakash said.

For example, in 2016, people living near the Kusmunda open-cast coal mine in Chhattisgarh had reported problems about land acquired without timely compensation, forests destroyed, water polluted, air befouled, soil rendered unsuitable for farming and human rights violated.

But in July 2017, after multiple requests from the coal ministry, the expert appraisal committee of the environment ministry decided that coal mines that expanded by up to 40% wouldn’t have to undertake public consultations.

Subsequently, South Eastern Coalfields, a subsidiary of Coal India that operates the Kusmunda mine, applied to expand it from 26 to 36 MTPA in February 2018 and to 40 MTPA in December 2018.

The removal of the public consultation requirement had diminished the ability of the plight of the people in the mine’s vicinity to affect the mine’s expansion. The new environment ministry memorandum now extends the possibility of similar consequences to other types of development as well.

This said, even changes that seem “practical and relatively benign” need to be examined on a case-by-case basis as they could have “significant impacts on certain delicate and biodiverse regions of the country,” Prakash added.

These changes also have implications for India’s climate targets. For instance, the UN Sustainable Development Goals require India to protect and restore their terrestrial ecosystems and use these resources sustainably.

“So the government must tread with extreme caution and foresight,” Prakash said, “otherwise face both internal and external censure and losses.”