Student unions petition Environment Minister

Student unions from several universities and colleges from across India have petitioned Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar to put the draft of the proposed Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020 on hold.

The EIA 2020, which is open to public comments until June 30, is a proposed update to the existing EIA 2006 that prescribes the procedure for industries to assess the ecological and environmental impact of their proposed activity and the mechanism whereby these would be assessed by expert committees appointed by the Ministry.

The new notification was officially made available online on March 23 and opened to public feedback until May 23. However, with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the closure of government presses, and emails from individuals and organisations requesting more time, the deadline for comments was extended to June 30, according to a note from the Press Information Bureau.

Haste questioned

On the basis of this, several activists, researchers and former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh too wrote to Mr. Javadekar, questioning the haste with which the draft EIA was being processed.

A Right to Information (RTI) request by environmentalist Vikram Tongad, relevant portions of which were viewed by The Hindu, showed that senior officials in the Environment Ministry had themselves mooted extending the date for public feedback until August.

However, the documents show that Mr. Javadekar finally decided to accept public feedback only until June 30, and take expert reviews and consider the draft EIA for finalisation in August.

R.P. Gupta, the incumbent Environment Secretary, refused to comment or clarify on requests from The Hindu.

‘In midst of pandemic’

“It is appalling that the Ministry has put out a draft notification for public comments in the midst of a global economic and public health emergency when there is restricted public movement, social distancing and challenges to every day life activities,” says the representation led by Tarang group of the Sonepat-based Ashoka University.

Other signatories include the Aligarh Muslim University Students Union, Ambedkar University Delhi Students Union, Environmental and Social Initiative Council, IISER (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research)-Bhopal, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, Jindal Global Law School, Student Council, Nature Committee of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, among others.

Key points of dispute

The key points of dispute with the proposed draft are that it shortens the period of public consultation hearings to a maximum of 40 days, and reduces from 30 to 20 days the time provided for the public to submit their responses during a public hearing for any application seeking environmental clearance.

This would, in the petitioners view, hinder public access in places where information was not easily accessible or areas in which people weren’t familiar with the process.

Crucially, the draft also institutionalises “violation” projects. Under a provision issued in 2017, it allows projects that have come up flouting environmental norms to be reviewed by a committee of experts and, if they so decreed, legalise the project after paying a fine. This, several environmentalists have argued, is seriously contrarian to several established principles of environment law.

The proposed norms also allow the declaration of some areas as “economically sensitive areas” without a public hearing or environmental clearance, and several “red” and “orange”-classified toxic industries could now operate as close as 0-5 km from a Protected Area in “callous disregard” for forests.

Finally, the increased validity of the environment clearances for mining projects (50 years versus 30 years currently) and river valley projects (15 years versus 10 years currently) raises the risk of irreversible environmental, social and health consequences on account of the project remaining unnoticed for long.

As The Hindu has previously reported, the Environment Ministry says that the EIA 2020 only consolidates legal changes as to how the EIA 2006 has been interpreted over the years.

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 12:20:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/student-unions-petition-environment-minister/article31918112.ece

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