Strongly criticising the EIA 2020 draft notification, a number of organisations and individuals, including environmental activists, of the State and the Northeast have submitted their suggestions before the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
The protesting bodies and individuals point out that the notification by weakening the environmental protection laws, legitimising violations, and compromising on public hearings, would push to the brink the region’s last surviving forests and their biodiversity.
They have also vehemently opposed the exemption of a list of projects under the ambit of the EIA, including projects labelled as ‘strategic’ by the government and linear projects such as roads and pipelines in border areas falling within a 100-km aerial distance from the Line of Actual Control with bordering countries, effectively covering much of the Northeast. Stating that the notification severely weakens various guidelines, restrictions and safeguards which legally exist for the wilderness and local people, Kaziranga Wildlife Society, the oldest NGO of the region, said that it was in stark contrast to the scope and spirit of Section 3 of the Environmental Protections Act (1986) itself.
“While there has been some streamlining with respect to the categorisation of projects, the public consultation step which is an important democratic process ensuring the welfare of stakeholders, has been severely undermined in the project areas. There are other such exemptions given for industries and relaxation of restrictions that we feel would dilute legal safeguards against destructive development,” KWS said in its memo to MoEFCC.
Stating that the draft notification by according post facto clearance of violations would trigger a spurt in highly-damaging industries and infrastructure development projects in forest areas, KWS secretary Mubina Akhtar said the draft notification fundamentally defeats the purpose of environmental clearance (EC) and related processes which include public hearing and makes the entire process of EC redundant.
“It also means we are legitimising violation and providing window to get clearance by adding punitive clauses which itself has no mechanism to monitor. We therefore urge the MoEFCC to drop this provision in its entirety,” she added.
Pointing out that the ‘General conditions’ have been removed from the draft notification, KWS said several river valley projects are in eco-sensitive areas, besides forming part of water catchments or source in protected areas, and as such general conditions should be reapplied in the draft.
On public consultation which the draft notification exempts in a number of cases, KWS said that it must be made mandatory for respective project proponents to take appropriate preventive/mitigation measures and address wildlife/ecological issues. Online public consultation also should be considered in case of any pandemic-like situation, it added.
KWS also voiced concern over the removal of the earlier provision on the handling of hazardous waste and demanded its restoration in the draft EIA 2020 to mitigate the grave threat pose by hazardous chemicals to the environment.
Environmental activist Surjya Kanta Dutta, who has been campaigning against opencast mining in the Dehing Patkai rainforest for four decades, said that the border area (exemption from EIA) clause of the draft notification would adversely affect vast stretches of pristine forests across the northeastern states.
“These forests are very rich in biodiversity, fauna and flora. The entire belt of the Patkai range stretching up to Namdapha National Park in Arunachal bordering Myanmar is a rainforest belt constituting the largest rainforest stretch of the country. The very existence of many indigenous tribes of the Northeast also depends upon the evergreen Patkai forests. These will now be subjected to wanton destruction,” he said.
Stating that the draft EIA would legitimise the illegalities committed by environmental criminals, Dutta urged the Government of India to heed the recommendations of the various committees and commissions, and verdicts of the law courts before going ahead with the notification.
“Rampant opencast coal mining, both legal and illegal, has already done irreparable damage to the Dehing Patkai rainforests. Any weakening of the environmental laws as has been sought by the draft EIA would completely destroy the remaining forests,” he said.