The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre is pushing for a new set of Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) norms for development projects amid the nationwide lockdown triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The draft EIA Notification 2020 has been widely criticised by independent experts and activists terming it ‘pro-industry’ and ‘anti-people’.
In Assam, activists, civil society organisations and the Opposition are up in arms against the move, fearing its adverse impact on the state’s ecology and environment. Assam is part of the eastern Himalayan region, one of the two biodiversity hotspots in the country — the other being the Western Ghats.
The draft EIA Notification comes amid widespread outrage over the ecological damage caused by a gas well blowout incident near the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in eastern Assam, and alleged illegal mining in the state’s Dehing-Patkai elephant reserve.
These incidents lend credence to the view that the Centre has allowed, what could be seen as, corporate plunder of natural resources in Assam in the name of ‘sustainable development’.
Interestingly, both the cases cited above involve state-owned companies – the Oil India (OIL) and North Eastern Coalfield (NEC), a subsidiary of Coal India (CIL) – which are now under the scanner for their alleged lapses and violation of environmental norms.
A panel constituted by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has blamed OIL for the “mismatch between planning and execution,” leading to Baghjan gas well blowout and the subsequent fire that caused ‘extensive damage’ to Maguri-Motapung wetland and Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.
“Additionally, it has caused irreparable physical harm and damage to privately-owned property of survivors in the affected villages,” the panel headed by retired Gauhati High Court judge Brojendra Prasad Katakey said in its preliminary report submitted to the NGT.
In the case involving CIL, the environmental court has ordered the constitution of a five-member committee to probe allegations of large-scale illegal coal mining in the Dehing-Patkai rainforest, also known as the ‘Amazon of the East’. The panel will submit its report before September 10.
Exemption from public hearings
The Baghjan case would help understand a key concern raised by the critics of the draft EIA Notification 2020, which they call a regressive departure from EIA 2006. EIA is a process that every development project has to go through for obtaining prior environmental clearances.
Among the most controversial changes the Narendra Modi government has introduced in the 2020 draft is that a wide variety of projects, including roads and pipelines in border areas, will now be exempt from public hearings.
A border area has been defined as the one “falling within 100 km aerial distance from the Line of Actual Control with countries bordering India.” This norm would severely impact India’s northeast, a biodiversity hotspot.
The influential All Assam Students’ Union has red-flagged this by saying, “it will also allow…the setting up of industries within 100 km of international borders. It will lead to destruction of the environment. This notification is against the interests of Assam. It has to be cancelled.”
Much before the draft EIA Notification 2020 was put out, OIL had skipped public hearings required for its drilling expansion in the eco-sensitive Baghjan area. In fact, the PSU did not face public hearings since 2011, according to documents submitted to the Union environment ministry.
According to the EIA Notification 2006, public hearings and a detailed EIA plan were mandatory for getting approval for oil and gas exploration activity near eco-sensitive zones. However, the environment ministry tweaked this norm in January this year, exempting oil and gas firms, looking to conduct exploratory drilling, from seeking an environmental clearance. Needless to say, OIL had benefitted from this change in rules.
Activists had slammed the government’s January move. “It exposes how the (environment) ministry views its own processes of environmental due diligence as a nuisance, and prioritises corporate interest over the health of communities and the environment,” Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based green activist, wrote in an article.
Destroying a rainforest
The rampant mining – both legal and illegal – has caused irreparable damage to Assam’s Dehing-Patkai wildlife sanctuary, the largest lowland rainforest in India. The EIA 2020 norms, once implemented, could allow such wanton destruction of forests in others parts of the country as well.
Sample this: the draft EIA Notification provides for post-fact clearances for projects in eco-sensitive zones, which means those operating in violation of the Environment Act will be allowed to apply for approvals.
In the case of Dehing-Patkai, North Eastern Coalfields had admitted in May that mining was being carried out in violation of norms (after its lease with the Assam government expired) since 2003.
A month prior to that, the National Board for Wildlife allowed CIL to carry out mining in Dehing-Patkai. It’s another matter that the Assam forest department imposed a fine of Rs 43.25 crore on CIL for illegal mining in Dehing-Patkai, home to a wide variety of animal species including elephants, tigers, leopards, Asiatic Black Bear, Hoolock Gibbon and Slow Loris.
Now, the draft EIA notification has only added to the public outrage over the Baghjan fire and the rampant mining in the ecologically fragile Dehing-Patkai rainforest.
“This is extremely dangerous for Assam and the northeast in general in view of the damage which has been already caused by mining/drilling operations in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park/Biosphere Reserve and Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary areas,” Debabrata Saikia, Leader of Opposition in the Assam assembly, said in a letter to the Union environment ministry.
The latter has sought suggestions and objections to the draft by August 10, following which it will be notified.