Among the key motives of the proposed Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2020 (EIA 2020) was to bring environmental violators under a regulatory regime by imposing a heavy penalty on them, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said on Thursday.
He was responding to former environment minister and Chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science, Technology and Environment, Jairam Ramesh.
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Last month, Mr. Ramesh, via a series of public letters to Mr. Javadekar, had castigated the EIA 2020 on several counts and as resulting from a mindset that saw environmental regulation as “an unnecessary burden and not an essential obligation to be met for sustainable development”.
A key criticism by Mr. Ramesh, and voiced by several environmentalists, was a clause that allowed illegal projects to be approved post-facto. That is, it could have been set up in contravention of existing laws but managers of the project could later on approach a dedicated Expert Appraisal Committee, called a “violations committee”, that would impose a fine and lay down additional conditions and thereby possibly legalise and even allow an expansion of the company’s operations.
LG Polymers case
A prominent case in point is Vishakapatnam-based LG Polymers that is now shut because of a styrene gas leak that killed 12 on May 7. The company had been violating environmental laws for decades and, in 2018, had applied to the violations committee for expanding its operations. Before the committee could take a call, the gas leak happened and now the plant is shut, a ₹50 crore fine imposed, and criminal proceedings are underway against company officials.
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Mr. Javadekar’s letter said that “previous actions by companies that were violative would be liable for ‘stringent’ penalties. We should not allow such companies in permanent unregulated status,” his letter notes. Since 2010 (under the United Progressive Alliance-II government), he noted, an Environment Ministry order permitted such violators to regularise on a permanent basis and this was struck down by the National Green Tribunal. “This government has engaged the public and received hundreds and thousands of suggestions/objections. So we are not doing it through an Office Memorandum but through a new notification with wider consultation,” said the letter that was also circulated on social media.
The Draft EIA is open to public consultation until August 11, after which there maybe Ministerial deliberations and a formal notification later in the year.
“There is a difference between an administrative practice of dealing with projects that violate a law and including a procedure by which projects can be regularised within the text of the law,” said Kanchi Kohli of the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, an expert on EIA laws. “By adding a procedure that allows the option of regularising violations, the 2020 notification normalises the the occurrence of violations rather than create a deterrence.”
Mr. Javadekar’s letters also addressed other criticisms by Mr. Ramesh — that the draft reduced the time for public consultations, exempted several categories of projects from environment impact assessments, and the Centre over-riding States’ freedom to appoint State-level assessment committees.