Public Policy

Development of Environmental Laws & Regulations in India with respect to Sustainable Development Goals 2030 and EIA Draft 2020

Environment rules & regulations in India since decades have seen moderate growth in terms of the development of framework and implementation of laws and regulations. The Environment Protection Act hastily came into existence in 1986 only after the occurrence of Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984. The prevalence of poverty since the early phases of independence and a disaster which could have been avoided well in time paved the way for putting compliance into force to regulate industrial development in our country. After the Stockholm Conference, the National Council for Environmental Policy and Planning was set up within the Department of Science and Technology to establish a regulatory body to look after the environment-related issues, which later on developed into the Ministry of Environment & Forest. 

Subsequently, to meet the demands of a growing nation, early Indian governments introduced green, white, blue and many revolutions which increased the need for addressing the environmental and health issues with it. With these reforms came in The Water (1974) & The Air Act (1981). Both the acts laid down guidelines to prevention and control increasing pollution. With the Environment Protection Act (1986), came in the Environment Impact Assessment which was a process of evaluating the impacts of a proposed project or development, taking into account inter-related socio-economic, cultural and human-health impacts, both beneficial and adverse. It is a tool defined by the United Nations Environment Programme to identify the environmental, social and economic impacts of a project prior to decision-making. It draws light on how the planning and design of a certain development or industrial project would affect the ecosystem and the natural habitat of that area and present the predictions and options to the decision-makers.

UN SDGs, COVID-19 and India

United Nations introduced Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 to eradicate poverty, build resilient societies and promote sustainable development for future generations. Out of these 17 detailed goals, SDG 13 emphasises on Climate Action which enforces the governments to take policy-level initiatives to protect and prevent the environment. Considering the recent times when we are dealing with COVID and should consider sources of renewable energy, the Indian government is keen on generating more coal power plants even when the demand remains low. The UN Secretary-General also criticised the Indian Government in his statement when he said that “No reason for any country to include coal in COVID-19 recovery plans.” Environmental activists and journalists have been raising their voices for the rights of indigenous people and how they have been illegally relocated from their own lands to build mining projects and setting up coal plants.

Indian Parliament in 2010 passed the National Green Tribunal Act which set up the NGT to efficiently accelerate the disposal of cases pertaining to environmental issues. With changing governments, these institutions saw fluctuating changes in ideologies and implementation. We saw the formation of the National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC) in 2008 launching special targeted missions to promote the idea of Green India and renewable energy and make sustainable development part of our economies. But after a decade now, these actions hardly gained any momentum due to changing political parties in power.

Cut short to 2020, the year didn’t even feel like it started. As soon as the year started, the world ushered into a Pandemic. As countries experienced lockdowns, the environment and the natural habitat was liberated from the land, air and water pollution (it need not be stressed upon that rivers and beaches across the globe recorded low levels of pollution) humans had created. History has shown us whenever human beings have experienced worldwide crisis and pandemics in the past, the level of carbon emissions have exponentially increased our previous consumption patterns. Now is the time to mend our mistakes and take precautions at the policy level to drive businesses across sectors to take conscious initiatives towards the environment and human values.

Through the Paris Agreement, the global aim of the countries is to keep their carbon emissions as low as possible so that the cumulative increase in temperature levels due to global warming remains under 2 degree Celsius. Here, India had committed itself to ensure that at least 40% of its electricity is generated from non-fossil sources by 2030 and has promoted the use of solar energy. India started out fairly big on promises but seems to have slowed its way down. Some might even say that it is on the verge of taking a U-turn. Last year, Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited cut down thousands of trees of the Aarey Forest to build a metro station in the name of a development project. It faced a lot of backlash from many people who came on the streets to protest against the deforestation. The state government also registered legal cases against the activists that were protesting. The incident only begs to show the intent of the government which makes decisions without proper planning and is ahead on putting a curb on the voice of citizens. Similar cases have taken place in Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Orissa where the tribal and indigenous people have not even got a chance to listen and put forward their case and they have been abandoned from their own land.                                                           

EIA Draft 2020 & Recent Events

Recent developments only lead us to believe that the actions of the government speak in denial and sheer ignorance of Climate Change. They have been flouting environmental and tribal laws and amending the regulatory system of the country to fast track forest clearances and investment in fossil fuel. The EIA Draft 2020 came rapidly in March by the MOEFCC when the whole country was in a hard lockdown, which changed the earlier guidelines laid down to regulate and remediate the effects of developmental projects. It was open to public suggestions and objections till June 30, which was then extended to August 11 by orders from the Delhi High Court. In 1994, it came in to ensure that the government accepts economic growth as well as makes sure that their environmental footprint is kept under serious check. Industries have often seen this process of obtaining clearance as a hindrance and many ministers have even termed it as an obstacle to development. Attempts to compromise on these projects might have benefitted a few but has contributed to damaging the environment and the economy. The gas leak this year on May 7 claimed the lives of 12 people and injured many. The plant was operating over two decades without any environment clearances. Poor regulations of environmental norms led to another disaster in the Baghjan Oil Fields in Assam which was also running without obtaining prior consent to establish or operate from Pollution Control Board of Assam. It caused heavy explosions and destruction in an area of rich biodiversity. By diluting public officials and scientific scrutiny, this draft seems to be leaning in favour of industries and does not strike a balance between development and the environment. This has grown significant amidst the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic fuelled by the destruction of wildlife and habitats. One of the main changes proposed by the draft is reducing public participation in the EIA process. Earlier a person who had a chance of being affected by the project or anyone who was interested in knowing about its impacts was allowed to participate in public hearings and send suggestions on the EIA Report. In the new draft, a list of project types that are proposed are to be exempted from public participation. Modernisation of irrigation projects, building and construction of area development projects, expansion or widening of national highways, projects concerning defence & security are all part of the list. Additionally, the time allotted for public hearings has been reduced to only 20 days to speed up the clearance process. This makes it extremely difficult for people living in rural or tribal areas who are most often directly impacted by industrial development projects. A big change comes from how the draft is viewed post facto assessments and violations. Earlier, the draft used to evaluate the impacts of a project before it was started, but if the new draft is finalised it makes it easier for the industries to violate EIA norms first and seek clearance later. Ultimately, a weak EIA Report and one with a fast-tracked clearance can lead to environmental damage and can also become economically challenging. One way to mend this was to do a cost-benefit analysis, and if it showed that the loss of livelihoods is not as much as the jobs and the benefits that it creates then it can be termed as a development, but not otherwise.                                         

From the past 2-3 months, the media and environmental activists have gained momentum with the public to raise awareness and their voices against this draft and in what innovative ways art can contribute to it. Illustrators and cartoonists have made skits and comics to start an online movement where they encouraged everyone to know their rights and collectively sign petitions to make their voices heard. As what can bring an impactful change is a movement driven by people together and this idea certainly gained recognition. MOEFCC has now received more than 17 lakh comments, suggestions and objections from people across the country.      

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Endnotes:

1. Amnesty Intl Report on Coal affecting Tribal Areas, https://s3.amazonaws.com/external_clips/2196257/Amnesty_Coal_Report-_Embargoed_till_13_July_3_pm.pdf?1480077839.

2. SC on Aarey Forest,  https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/supreme-court-grants-stay-in-felling-of-trees-in-mumbais-aarey-colony/articleshow/71473965.cms.

3. Current standings by Builders Association & CREDAI, https://science.thewire.in/environment/builders-association-credai-at-odds-over-new-draft-eia-notification/.            

4. Environment Ministry says 17 lakh comments on EIA Draft 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/environment-ministry-says-17-lakh-comments-on-draft-eia-notification/story-hIZhPzTM185fplOCeAAjGI.html#:~:text=Environment%20ministry%20says%2017%20lakh%20comments%20on%20draft%20EIA%20notification,-Updated%3A%20Au.

This article is authored by Samriddhi Dhiman, who is pursuing MA Development Studies from IGNOU, New Delhi.

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