World Environment Day: A new proposed law backs construction projects in eco-sensitive areas

From ports to hydroelectric projects, in places from Tamil Nadu to Uttarakhand, the new environmental law being drafted has come under severe criticism from activists

June 05, 2021 09:00 am | Updated 09:00 am IST

Untenable: Barn swallows at Pulicat.

Untenable: Barn swallows at Pulicat.

Illayaraja, in his 40s, is a fisherman in Tamil Nadu’s Pulicat town. Three generations of his family have subsisted on fishing for a living. But Illayaraja hopes for a different life for his two children. “I hope they find better jobs elsewhere and move out of this seashore town,” he says. The fishing village barely has any families left, most having migrated to cities in search of better livelihoods.

“Fishing is becoming untenable here. Today we are surrounded by factories and power plants,” says Illayaraja, who had joined the protest against the Adani-L&T Kattupalli Port proposed here. The controversial project is expected to erode the northern part of the coast at an alarming rate of 16 metres per year, and will impact birdlife and marine diversity. The construction site is just 2.1 km away from Pulicat Wildlife Sanctuary, even though the law bars ports within 10 km of a sanctuary. “We already have high tides because of the development in the area and are restricted by big boats and ships,” says Illayaraja.

The irony is that the Union government has listed Pulicat as one of 14 ‘priority wetlands’ in Tamil Nadu and an ‘important coastal and marine biodiversity area’.

Urgent action

As you read this, a team at J. Sagar Associates in Bengaluru is working on the draft of a new, single environment management act, which is all set to back this project and several others such as hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand and Jammu’s Ujh multipurpose project, all of which have the potential to destroy the ecologically sensitive areas they are set in.

Protests at Dehradun railway station against power projects in Pala Maneri and Bhaironghati in 2010.

Protests at Dehradun railway station against power projects in Pala Maneri and Bhaironghati in 2010.

Amit Kapur, Joint Managing Partner, J. Sagar Associates, is under a “strict confidentiality obligation” and unable to share details, but what we know so far is that this new umbrella law is set to replace three existing Acts — Air Act 1981, Water Act 1974, and the Environment (Protection) Act 1986.

The roots of this new Act can be traced to the 2014 Subramanian Committee that was appointed by the Union environment ministry to revise environment laws.

As for the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of the Pulicat Lake, the State forest department submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) for a 0 km ESZ in 2019. The expert appraisal committee on ESZ rejected the proposal. “If the new provisions are notified, the Pulicat Lake region will be affected. The new provisions dilute environmental protection and open up areas for development and ease of doing business,” says Pooja Kumar of the Coastal Resource Centre.

A March 15 Facebook post on the Chennai Climate Action Group’s page highlights how, for the second time in a month, Kattupalli Kuppam fisherfolk demanded the fulfilment of the promise of permanent jobs in Adani-L&T Ports. ‘Angered by the government’s refusal to enforce the commitment, even as the threat of losing their fishing livelihood [because] of Adani’s demand for a No Fishing Zone around Kattupalli Port, a section of the fisherfolk are blocking the entrance to the L&T and Adani Kattupalli ports, even as several boats have set off to block the seaside entrance to the port,’ it reads.

The appraisal of the Kattupalli Port project by the MoEFCC to grant terms of reference for the environmental impact assessment (EIA) and the Tamil Nadu government’s move to reduce the ESZ are both moving along independent paths, says Kumar. “It is suspected that the reduction of the ESZ will directly benefit the process of setting up the Kattupalli Port.”

Hard not to question

The company has submitted the draft EIA report for a public hearing that has not yet taken place due to COVID-19, and the new date is yet to be announced.

It is hard not to question the timing of yet another environmental law amidst a crippling pandemic. “The problem is when COVID-19 becomes an excuse to do away with public consultation and discussion that are an essential part of parliamentary democracy. It is ironic when the government considers not having public consultation as an act in public interest,” says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta.

Abandoned construction work at Loharinag Pala Hydro Power Project in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand.

Abandoned construction work at Loharinag Pala Hydro Power Project in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand.

While the government did not directly state that the Subramanian Committee Report will be implemented, in reality, it has set in motion many of its most problematic recommendations, says Dutta. The simplified procedure for felling trees under Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980; the exemption from EIA for building and construction projects; exemptions for expanding coal mines; and the absence of public hearing are all part of the Subramanian Committee Report. “Environmental laws are today enacted with neither the environment nor the public in mind, but keeping in mind the interest of those who want to exploit the environment. The emission norms for power plants, for instance, have been framed keeping the interest of the emitters in mind and not those who inhale the polluted air,” says Dutta.

Need to engage

India’s EIA process appears to ensure that a project gets approval in the shortest timeframe without basic studies. In the case of Mopa airport in Goa, after four years of litigation before the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court, the latter directed the Expert Appraisal Committee of the MoEFCC to re-examine the project. Dutta says the re-examination was done in a single meeting held on one day and the committee approved the project again.

Drafting environmental laws has rarely been a transparent, participative process, says Shibani Ghosh, environmental lawyer and Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, adding that this is true for the legislative process in India in general. “Demands for reform of environmental regulation generally, and of specific regulatory instruments (such as the EIA notification) have been raised so many times over the years. Several studies and reports have been published by government and non-government actors. The courts have commented and made recommendations as well,” she says.

“It is important for the government to engage with all stakeholders in a meaningful way right from when the proposal is on the drawing board. Tweaking a few provisions in response to public comments (if public consultation is undertaken, that is) is just not enough.”

Top News Today


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.