Open Letter — Inputs on the Draft EIA 2020 from SaciWATERs
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Open Letter — Inputs on the Draft EIA 2020 from SaciWATERs

Open Letter — Inputs on the Draft EIA 2020 from SaciWATERs

To,
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change
Government of India
Indira Paryavaran Bhawan, Jor Bagh, New Delhi

Sub: Inputs on the Call for Observations and Suggestions on the Draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 from SaciWATERs Hyderabad

Dear Hon'ble Minister,

Greetings of the Day from the Team SaciWATERs Hyderabad! 

As a highly active and concerned Civil Society Organization, we SaciWATERs[1] (South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies), write this letter as inputs towards the call for observations and suggestions on the draft notification of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), 2020 that was circulated on March 23, 2020). We have drafted this letter after a detailed review of the draft Environment Impact Assessment Report, 2020 besides the several articles/suggestions/critiques that are published by various individuals and institutions from across the country. It is overwhelming to find the involvement of several individuals and institutions in reviewing the Draft EIA-2020 and that shall make the New EIA participatory and stronger. Below we present our position paper as a review of the Draft EIA-2020 with some constructive thoughts. 

The EIA is an important regulation through which the impacts of various developmental projects on land use, water, forest, pollution, biodiversity, etc. alias on the environment are studied, and used to make informed choices in the decision making. Since SaciWATERs is a Think Tank focused on water allied issues and activities, the review of the EIA-2020 is aligned towards the water as a major area of concern with issues related to water resources, distresses, distribution, access, water quantity, water quality, science, technology, and sustainability. The EIA-2020 must be made mandatory for all water resources projects to ensure long term sustainability in development. In other words, all development activities must focus on the water-centric approach given the climate-induced rising water distresses that transcend flood and drought to lack of access and asymmetric distribution of water services the marginalized communities and species. 

In the larger interest of the society and ecology, we have come up with some observations and suggestions in the succeeding paras for consideration and its subsequent inclusion in the EIA-2020. Since water has a connective capacity, the observations listed in the thematic areas are directly or indirectly related to water issues and activities to which we like to draw your attention. Given that some important factors are always on the top of the issues surrounding the draft EIA-2020 which are also widely discussed by individuals and institutions, we highlight these key points first followed by the other points as below:

1. Post-facto clearance: This aspect is extensively critiqued in the draft EIA-2020. Since, the clause incorporated allows the industrial developments to avail clearances after the construction is already completed and operation has already begun, therefore, legitimizing those industries that may have been initiated without prior and appropriate permissions. It will be important to know what process will be asked to follow to get the prerequisite of the environmental approvals and how they will be brought into the mainstream environmental approval processes afterward. 

2. Suo moto reporting of violation: Violations will be considered if reported either by a regulatory body or by the project itself. This may discourage reporting of the violations by affected people, local people, social-environmental activists, and civil society organizations. In addition, the suo moto reporting by projects is highly unlikely as this would amount to lodging complaints against their own benefit for the project and therefore highly counterintuitive. In many cases, where the development of the projects are also seen as state development and therefore in the interest of the states certain environmental violations may be ignored by states as well which in the long run may be harmful, for example, the recent industrial accidents at Visakhapatnam, Assam, etc.

3. Low fines for delays in compliance: The fines for failure to submit compliance reports range from Rs. 500-2500/- per day. This amount seems to be an exceedingly low amount for industries with large profits and therefore industries have incentives to outweigh the costs from the benefits from non-compliance. 

4. The North-East region with its location near borders may get overlooked: Exempted sensitive areas include ‘Border Areas’ which are defined within 100km aerial distance from Line of actual control. This distance would cover most of the North-East region and thus exempt many industries and projects that are emerging in these sensitive ecological regions. Large hydel-power projects, pharmaceutical industries, highway projects, etc planned in these regions at a massive cost of essential Himalayan rivers and forests would be able to avoid public scrutiny.

5. Weakening of categorizations of industries by the introduction of category B2: The notification weakens the categorization of industries and projects by incorporating a category B2 which includes projects that can escape scrutiny and mandated appraisal. The inclusion of this category goes against the very spirit of the EIA and offers ease of business to industries at the cost of the environment.

6. The leeway given to modernization below 50% capacity increase: The categorization of levels of modernization and increase in production capacity up to 50% not requiring an EIA amounts to a weakening of conditions for mandated environmental assessment. Instead, any percentage modernization may be incentivized to adhere to more environmental regulations towards waste minimization and green production. 

GENERAL POINT IN EIA: 

1. Third-Party independent EIA should be mandatory: Independent third-party verification is an important aspect of practice for ensuring the credibility of any EIA. Reviewing the technical information provided in the EIA by a third-party shall ensure that there are no information gaps and that questions and concerns are adequately addressed. It will also save future legal issues (if arise) besides ensuring a notion of transparency and vigilantism.

2. Appointment of Third-Party agency: Appointment of a Third-Party shall be outside the purview of the project authority to ensure independent inspection and evaluation. The independence of verifiers such as checkers, auditors, and Environmental Control Officers, are likely to be influenced by various factors leading to a conflict of interest between role-players in EIA and EIA follow-up. Identifying these factors is, therefore, crucial for long term environmental sustainability.

DISASTER RISK MANAGEMENT IN EIA:

3. Disaster risk assessment is unclear in the draft document: There is an upward trend in development-induced disasters in the country which are challenging sustainable development efforts. Though disasters are pushed to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), it is also generally accepted that instrument such as an EIA is useful to anticipate the risks and thereby reduce the disaster risks arising from the development projects. 

4. It is better if the EIA and the DRA (Disaster Risk Assessment) activities are integrated with the regulatory and oversight responsibility must staying with the NDMA at the National level and SDMA at the state level and DDMA at the district level. It is important to mention that climate change-induced disasters are on the rise so are the developmental induced with a major loss to human life and economy. 

5. A provision for an REIA (Rapid Environment Impact Assessment) should be brought in to be made mandatory after any major catastrophe: It works as a tool to identify, define and prioritize potential environmental impacts in disaster situations, in order to permit quick identification of salient environmental issues in disasters and improve linkages between sustainable environmental management, disaster preparedness and response. 

6. All-natural and environmental disasters create a huge impact and shall be subject to assessment through an REIA so that it gets duly addressed by the recovery efforts be it by the government or corporate or civil society or community themselves. A recovery package in the EIA is duly suggested and to be aligned towards the Green Growth.

7. There should be a framework for alignment between the EIA and DRA: The results of gaps of alignment between EIA and DRA suggest more specificity is needed in legislative provisions and suggest a review of standard practice in using EIA to address disaster risks. The findings also imply the need to undertake evaluations of EIA systems elsewhere to assess their effectiveness in addressing development-induced disaster risks. 

8. Inter-generational aspects missed out: The draft EIA-2020 needs to address vital components pertaining to intergenerational aspects such as social equity, assessing local and global impacts, use of resources, public influence on project development, etc. If global effects and local impacts on the management of natural resources and environment are not assessed judiciously, may exclude and affect future generation’s needs. 

INDUSTRIES IN EIA: 

9. Small and medium scale industries in many cases, particularly in chemical-based industries such as dyes and drugs, are categorized under the weaker threshold category B2. This may ignore the widespread harm that are caused by such small and medium industries in close clusters, for instance, pharmaceutical clusters around urban areas. While individual industries may be considered to have a low environmental impact and therefore not requiring an appraisal, however in aggregate the spatial clusters of such industries have huge local impacts. Thus, this weak categorization for any chemical-based industries needs reconsideration.

10. Some categories of re-rolling mills, small and medium cement plants, acids other than phosphoric or ammonia, sulphuric acid, micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in dye and dye intermediates, bulk drugs, synthetic rubbers, medium-sized paint units, all inland waterway projects, expansion or widening of highways between 25 kilometers and 100 kilometers with defined parameters, aerial ropeways in ecologically sensitive areas and specified building construction and area development projects. The exemption from EIA and public consultation for listed B2 category activity and expansion and modernization projects have a serious impact on the environment if they carried out without oversight.

CONSTRUCTION IN EIA:

11. Building construction projects are categorized under category B1. This categorization gives particular leeway to the massive expansion of real estate development at the urban fringes that is taking place at the cost of many environmental resources and services- such as forests, wetlands, groundwater, and encroachment of small water bodies. The haphazard developments are preceding the planning of the peri-urban areas and with poor infrastructure, the areas are facing several environmental and health issues.

12. According to the draft EIA-2020, any construction within 15 hectares wouldn’t require any clearance, which will increase the construction and real-estate boom by manifolds leading us into a change in land use pattern, increase in GHGs emissions, waste and effluent generation ultimately making habitats unsustainable. This requires serious rethinking as many of these developments are not demand-based rather investment based leading to a high vacancy rate in the country which in the long run is a liability of the environmental matters.

13. The rationale that Green Energy projects will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and are better for the environment seems to be a notion. However, such assumptions overlook the outputs of ecological and social concern and require rethinking. The construction and operations of such types of projects shall require large land parcels that are likely to be generated from the conversion of agricultural lands and ignoring the natural ecosystem and hydrology of the place. Any approval of large construction shall now adhere to some kind of environmental commitments including green building norms. This can be coordinated by the MoEFCC with the Ministry of Urban Development, Housing, Road, and allied ministries. 

GOVERNANCE IN EIA: 

14. The EIA has a spatial focus on the ‘district’ for jurisdiction and public consultation. This focus is on the locational area of the project and does not cater to situations where the environmental impact of the project could cross such jurisdictional boundaries through pollution of air or cross-boundary waters (streams or aquifers), and downstream depletion. Therefore, a provision of Regional Ecosystem or Regional Landscape Plan is required between the national economic planning and local land-use planning, and that plan must be focused on the Green Growth and guide the local physical developments in urban, peri-urban and rural planning. The MoEFCC

15. Schedule item 34 category B2 sub-item (ii) - the clause for this categorization is too broad and potentially contradictory. This can be well used to override all of the clauses for categories A and B1 for the item. This is particularly significant as the item refers to industrial estates, parks, zones, and investment regions that cover a large variety of industries located in spatial clusters.

WASTE MANAGEMENT IN EIA: 

16. Dump mining should not come under the B2 category as the mining waste has a huge impact on the environment and human health. Mining remains the most unorganized sector and therefore the regulations in this domain still remain the weakest in the country. MoEFCC must rise to the issue and take some strong decisions on environmental regulations of the mining sectors and especially ways to curb and penalize illegal mining. 

NATURAL RESOURCES IN EIA:

17. Digging of well for irrigation and drinking water purposes are generalized and kept under the exception of projects. The water extraction for drinking purposes could be household or commercial as happening in all the peri-urban areas of the cities. These zones are struggling with this “commercial extraction of drinking water” to fulfill the drinking and domestic water needs of the cities. High groundwater depletion zones shall be monitored with some norms/regulations for the extraction of water from the ground besides special provisions for research and awareness. The peri-urban areas require immediate attention to spatial planning and therefore Regional Environmental/Landscape Master Plans vision for next 20-30-50 years is suggested.

18. Protection and development of wetlands, embankments, riverbanks, and oceanfront protections, alias natural preservation shall be adequately addressed by using the EIA. The reclamation of water resources must be regulated strictly with a proper valuation of natural resources. It is now a known fact that the drought and flood are man-made disasters and directs our attention more towards opting for water-centric thinking, planning, and development.  

AGRICULTURE RESOURCES IN EIA: 

19. Learning from the present Covid-19 crisis, it is evident that agriculture is an economical buffer sector for the country. The soul of the country lies in the rural land of farming. Alterations in the agricultural-land use in the disguise of development will have a huge negative impact on health and economic activities in the region and may lead to more food scarcity, unemployment, dissatisfaction unless there are substantial capacity building and awareness for sustainable farming and green growth. 

20. The projects which are labeled as of strategic and/or national importance are all involved with large acquiring tracts of forest area, national parks, coastal area zones, wetlands, and agricultural lands. The environmental impacts of these could be huge if proper precautions are not undertaken and will heavily compromise upon the needs of future generations, in terms of food, water, and energy. 

ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE IN EIA: 

21. Environmental Justice needs more strong arms for the violators. We learn that the recent Ammonium Nitrate Blast in Beirut alarmed the Government of India in instructing to disperse the hoarding and distribute to the pesticide making companies which signal a wrong notion to the people of the country. MoEFCC must have a concrete plan to phase out the use of pesticides and incentivize diverse and sustainable farming through green growth initiatives. Further, in the natural occurrences, of incidences like the Uttarakhand Forest Fire, both parties i.e. the affected, and the violator shall be brought to justice. Unfortunately, we are yet to consider justice for the voiceless innumerable species in the country however, we can ensure a justice system that is directed towards ecosystem rejuvenation. 

22. The recent incident in Vizag and Assam are examples of what a poorly implemented EIA can do to the society now and in the future. To legalize environmental violations through the regularization methods without proper actions taken against the violators can be endangering a lot of people (and species) and encouraging the violators to whisk away with the meager penalty imposition. 

23. Room for Community Participation. The draft EIA-2020 show lesser room for community participation through suggestion, whistleblowing, etc. The shrinking role of public participation will affect the goal towards maximum governance and certain decisions may be compromised not by the government per se but highly likely by the businesses. Since every community is typical with socio-political history, language, social structure, and cultural belief system they bring the local wisdom to resolve the challenges which are crucial in the long-term sustainable resource and environmental management. If the local authorities will have the liberty to decide to take into consideration the communities that are affected through the violation, then they must also be more empowered with participatory planning at the local level which is a mere tokenism at this moment. We shall not wait for more Vizag/Assamcases to improvise the EIA policy towards strict regulations for development and public participation for safe and secured growth.  

We conclude with a strong belief that there is a need for fast track environmental justice system in the country should we wish to achieve a safe and secure future. There is also a need for more rigorous training on environmental ethics to awaken the local business community of the environmental impacts of their actions. This will also allow moving towards minimum government and maximum governance in the environmental sector. 

Like the commitment to Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration as well as the Principles of Natural Justice, we do hope that the MoEFCC will uphold its accountability towards clued-up public participation while taking a careful look at our observations and suggestions towards the draft EIA-2020 notification. This is also the path charted through the commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

As mentioned already that water has a connective capacity, the observations and suggestions listed above are in/directly related to water issues and activities to which we have brought your attention. At the moment of this historic change in the environmental assessment regime in the country, we like to assure the MoEFCC and the GoI that SaciWATERs are committed to the cause of contributing towards a Water Secured Society. We are associated with the MoEFCC since SaciWATERs is formed and we look forward to strengthening that association by remaining available to offer our research, education, capacity building, advocacy, implementation, empowerment, and collaboration services in the field of water policy and governance, peri-urban water security, climate change and water distress, water and gender, water sanitation and hygiene, and water quality and quantity. We are available to fully support initiatives by the MOEFCC towards our core area of integrated water management through interactive water governance. 

Should you like to discuss any of the above points or otherwise reach out to us, we are available at the contact mentioned at the beginning and below. 

Thank you!
Sincerely, 

Team SaciWATERs 
Dr. Mansee Bal Bhargava, Asif Shahab, Shreya Chakraborty, Suchita Jain, 
Dr. Srineeta Mondal, Mastan Vali, Prithvi Bommaraboyina, Judith Christiana
B - 87, 3rd Avenue, Sainikpuri,
Hyderabad - 500 094,Telangana, India
Tel: +91 40 27116721 

References:

MINISTRY OF ENVIRONMENT, FOREST, AND CLIMATE CHANGE New Delhi, the -----March 2020 (Link)

PRESS RELEASE:100 + Movements, organizations, and environmentalists write to 785 Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs to take a stand against the Draft EIA Notification 2020 and to demand its immediate withdrawal! (Link)

Ghosh, S., "Explained Ideas: What ails with the draft EIA notification 2020?", The Indian Express,  Aug 12, 2020. Accessed Date: Aug 12, 2020. (Link)

Mazoomdar, J., "Explained: Reading the draft Environment Impact Assessment norms, and finding the red flags", The Indian Express, Aug 10, 2020. Accessed Date: Aug 12, 2020. (Link)

Ghosh, S., "Draft EIA notification dilutes environmental protections, is in denial of ecological crises", The Indian Express, Aug 11, 2020. Accessed Date: Aug 12, 2020. (Link)

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Mohanty, A., "Why draft EIA 2020 needs a revaluation" Down To Earth, July 6, 2020. Accessed Date: Aug 12, 2020. (Link)

Shrivastava, K.S., "Govt exempts big realty from obtaining environmental clearance", Hindustan Times, July 13, 2016. Accessed Date: Aug 12, 2020. (Link)

Ellis-Petersen, H."India plans to fell ancient forest to create 40 new coalfields", The Guardian, Aug 8, 2020. Accessed Date: Aug 12, 2020. (Link)

Deepika, K.C., "Draft EIA Notification 2020 could spell disaster for the Western Ghats, say experts",  The Hindu, July 1, 2020. Accessed Date: Aug 12, 2020. (Link)

Ananthakrishnan, G., "The Hindu Explains | What are the key changes in the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020?", The Hindu, Aug 2, 2020. Accessed Date: Aug 12, 2020. (Link)

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Endnote:

[1] SaciWATERs, South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies, is a policy research institute based in Hyderabad. From its inception in 2001, it works on the critical issues related to people and the environment with a focus on water resources management in South Asia. SaciWATERs endeavors to enhance the integrated water resources management paradigm in the region with a consideration of all issues using a humanitarian and development approach. The emphasis is on the assertion of traditional wisdom with the advancement in modern science and technology. Our Knowledge Bank is built through a combination of research, education, capacity building, advocacy, implementation, empowerment, and collaboration. SaciWATERs partners with universities and academic institutions from across the global north and south to fundamentally reshape water resources knowledge systems in South Asia.

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.