Groups across India call out MoEFCC: ‘Aatmanirbarta’ ignored by ministry

[ Onam Perme ]
The latest environmental impact assessment (EIA) draft issued by the ministry of environment, forest & climate change (MoEFCC) goes against India’s stance to protect biodiversity, and against the agreements made in the Paris Climate Accord.
The proposed draft EIA will encourage violations to continue undeterred, resulting in an exponential increase in amounts of GHG emissions and other air pollutants released by the industries.
A citizens’ coalition, ‘Build India Back Better’, calls on the MoEFCC to withdraw the draft. If it goes through, it will impact the livelihoods of farmers, fisherfolks and Adivasi communities adversely.
The draft proposes to fundamentally alter India’s current environmental rules and regulations, assessment and public participation, and goes against the legal convention in environmental law. Several experts, think tanks and environmental activists have sent objections and recommendations to the ministry. The deadline for objection ends on 30 June.
According to the latest draft, the rules are relaxed to ease the working of ongoing projects and the other 191 projects which are set for approval in the near future. At a time of global climate and ecological emergency and associated socioeconomic crises that follow, India should be taking the lead in phasing out fossil fuels. However, the ministry has instead decided to relax norms on clearances and simultaneously the union government has initiated the ‘Unleashing Coal’ campaign, auctioning 50 more new coal blocks to private players in the heart of the country, rich in biodiversity reserves and home to indigenous communities, namely in the states of Odisha, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
Not just forests, our oceans, wetlands and marine life stands at risk, with more than 20,000 species of marine fauna, thriving fishing communities and coastal cities on the waterfront. The EIA 2020 draft notifications, if passed, will open up our fragile coasts and its natural flood defences to rising sea levels, reducing it to a piece of land and resource to be exploited for industry, real estate and port development.
A recent report from the ministry of earth sciences pointed to impacts of climate change over the Indian region. The current draft lacks understanding of the adverse effects of activities like disturbance in eco-sensitive zones, extensive mining, capital dredging, impacting Adivasi and indigenous communities disproportionately.
The draft is a terrible response to the ongoing ecological crisis in the nation. India has just witnessed climate change-triggered calamities like the locust attacks, increasing cyclones and human negligence accidents such as the Vizag gas leak and the Assam Oil leak, which could have been avoided if a stronger EIA was in place. Citizens from across India have strongly objected to the draft:
Archana Soreng, of the Khadiya tribe in Odisha, Research Officer at Vasundhara Odisha said: “A flurry of environmental clearances will have catastrophic effects on wildlife corridors and wellbeing and tenurial rights of Adivasi and forest dwelling communities in India. Forest and Nature are the source of life and identity of the Adivasi and forest dwelling communities. Unlike others, who see forest and Nature as commercial commodities.”
Ashish Birulee, photojournalist, activist and founding member of Adivasi Lives Matter said: “The EIA will majorly affect Adivasi community because basically all the projects will be built after displacing the Adivasis from their lands on which they have been living since long before the government of India was even formed. The Adivasi community has been dependent on cultivation and resources from forests, like they go foraging for fruits, firewood, leafy vegetables, medicines. Their self-reliant livelihood will be completely ruined.”
Dr Meher Abadian, a veterinarian said: “I am not sure what message the government is trying to send us via this new shoddy draft, which will result in a huge loss of biodiversity, damage ecosystems and aggravate human-wildlife conflict, pushing our wildlife towards extinction.”
Sheetal Bhan, an educator from Mumbai, said: “It’s appalling that the ministry has not understood the connection between pandemics and loss of biodiversity. Isn’t the job of the environment ministry to protect our forests? I have a 10-year-old son. What future do these kids have without access to clean air and water? This draft should be immediately withdrawn.”
A coalition of citizens, civil society groups and organizations across India have joined hands to object to the current draft and form alliances to pursue transparent processes for a sustainable, healthy and clean future. The Build India Back Better coalition demands that the new draft and structure should be created with a real consultative process after the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted and civic life is normalized across the country.

Build India Back Better Coalition is:

Let India Breathe, Fridays For Future India, XR in India, Save Earth Save Future, IIPC, Environment Ministry of Ashoka University Student Government, Muse Foundation, Karvaan Foundation (Udgir), Youth for Swaraj, There Is No Earth B, Climate Save Movement, Aarey Conservation Group, The Project Amara, Save Mollem, Naturalis T Foundation, Millennials for Environment, Vanashakti, Adivasi Lives Matter, Citizens For Hyderabad, Hyderabad Rising, National Alliance for Peoples’ Movement (NAPM), Forest Rights COVID-19 Response Odisha, Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, Save Mangroves of Andhra Pradesh, Green-Tech Foundation – Meghalaya, SAPCC Youth, ASA TISS, Delhi Trees SoS, Let’s Save Delhi, Climate Front Jammu and Treeroes.

Key pointers from the current draft:

1. Permanently allows for regularization of illegal industries which have not obtained environment clearances, by asking them to simply pay meagre fines. So, there will be no deterrence effect.
2. The draft neglects public consultation for projects, including modernization of irrigation projects, buildings, construction, and area development projects, all projects concerned with national defense and security, all linear projects like pipelines in border areas, and all offshore projects.
3. The draft exempts public hearing for more than 35 highly polluting chemical industries in notified industrial estates, such as manufacturing of acids, paints, dyes, fertilizers, pesticides and pharmaceuticals, amongst others. This can cause havoc in rural areas that depend entirely on groundwater and riverine water for domestic and agricultural use.
4. Industries are now allowed to only give an annual environmental compliance report, rather than half-yearly reports. Past experiences show that industries have continued to provide data which are false and inaccurate. Seeking an annual report provides incentives to industries to further downplay any socio-environmental issues arising in their projects. This compliance needs to be made more stringent by seeking quarterly reports.
5. If an industry is found with non-compliance of any environmental condition, no provision to suspend or cancel the environment clearance. The polluter can merely pay some fine and continue merrily.
6. The current draft increases the validity of the environment clearances to 50 years for mining projects as against 30 years in the current law and 15 years for river valley projects as against 10 years, thus increasing the risk of irreversible environmental, social and health consequences on account of the project remaining unnoticed for long.
7. Public hearings should be made mandatory as India’s large coastal population of 60, million including fishermen and farmers, are directly dependent on the coasts. Furthermore, it provides for a reduction of the time period from 30 days to 20 days for the public to submit their responses during a public hearing for any application seeking environmental clearance. (Onam Perme is a member of Fridays For Future: Arunachal Pradesh.)