On July 12, Fridays for Future India (FFF), a collective of young environmental campaigners, received a notice from the Delhi police that accused it of committing offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Its alleged crime: “sending too many emails” to the Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, with subjects tagged “EIA 2020”.
Over the last few weeks, the FFF has organised a sustained protest against a proposed new notification, which aims to replace the existing model of conducting environmental impact assessments (EIA) in India.
The notice the group received claimed that the campaign’s details published on its website contained “objectionable contents” and constituted “unlawful activities or terrorists act[s]” which were “dangerous for the peace, tranquillity and sovereignty of India”.
However the notice was eventually withdrawn, after the police cited a “clerical” error.
But equally this must also make us wonder what it is about the FFF’s campaign that drew such ire(anger) out of the government.
Is the new draft environmental impact assessment policy so critical to the state’s programme that even the slightest acts of dissent are to be quashed with maximum force?
Chance to Re asses:
The wreckages(damages) of COVID-19, one would have thought, would have given the government a chance to reassess what its goals towards climate justice ought to be.
It has altered(changed) our relationships not only with each other but also with the environment.
What we do not seem to understand is that the supposed normality that we are craving does not mean that there are no fresh disasters ahead.
And those disasters, as every sign demonstrates, are likely to be all the more catastrophic(harmful) unless we contend with the deplorable(shameful) neglect that we have shown towards the environment.
It is time we recognised, as Bill McKibben wrote in The New Yorker, that “normal is the enemy”.
Culture of Disregard:
Yet, the proposed new environmental impact assessment policy symbolises a rush to restore society to where it was before COVID-19 halted(stopped) its motor of progress.
Around the world, legislative interventions mandating EIAs began to burgeon(increase) in the late 1960s.
The basic aim of these measures was to ensure that the state had at its possession a disinterested analysis of any development project and the potential impact that it might have on the environment.
It took India, though, until 1994 before it notified its first set of assessment norms, under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
This policy mandated that projects beyond a certain size from certain sectors such as mining, thermal power plants, ports, airports and atomic energy should secure an environmental clearance as a precondition to their commencement.
But the notification, subject as it was to regular amendments, proved a failure.
In 2006, a new environmental impact assessment programme was conceived(thought), ironically on the back of corporate pressure. There was a belief that the 1994 system hindered(obstructed) speedy growth.
The new draft attempted to decentralise the process.
It increased the number of projects that required environmental clearance.
It also created appraisal committees at the level of both the Centre and States, the recommendations of which were made a qualification for a sanctioning.
What is more, the programme also mandated that pollution control boards hold a public hearing to glean(get) the concerns of those living around the site of a project.
But, in practice, the 2006 notification also proved regressive(backward). The course remained mired in opacity(unclear).
The final EIA report, for example, was not made available to the public; the procedure for securing clearances for certain kinds of projects was accelerated.
There was little scope available for independent judicial review.
When clearances were challenged, the courts treated the views of the assessment authorities as sacrosanct(pure).
In the process, EIAs, far from serving as a bulwark(custodian) for environmental justice, came to be regarded as a mere inconvenience, as a bureaucratic exercise that promoters of a project had to simply navigate through.
As many campaigners have highlighted, the new draft is riddled with problems.
It enables a sweeping clearance apparatus to a number of critical projects that previously required an EIA of special rigour(strictness).
The industries which required expert appraisal under the existing 2006 notification, they will, under the new notification, be subject to less demanding processes.
These include aerial ropeways, metallurgical industries, and a raft of irrigation projects, among others.
Damaging Fundamental Tenets:
What is more, the new proposal does nothing to strengthen the expert appraisal committees on which so much responsibility is reposed, leaving the body rudderless(without aim).
It also does away with the need for public consultation for a slew of different sectors, negating perhaps a redeeming(saving) feature of the 2006 notification.
But, most egregiously, the proposal opens up a window for securing post-facto clearances.
That is, companies which have commenced a project without a valid certificate will be allowed to regularise their operations by paying a fine.
If there is a singular logic to the EIA process, it is that environmental clearance is a prerequisite(essential) to the launching of a project.
But here the government wants to reverse that fundamental tenet(principle).
There is no doubt that a mere strengthening of the existing EIA norms will not by itself be sufficient.
We need a renewed vision for the country; one that sees the protection of the environment as not merely a value unto itself but as something even more foundational to our democracy.
For this to happen, though, we have to see ourselves as not distinct from the environment that we live in, but as an intrinsic part of it.
To achieve this broader vision we will need deeper thinking, greater political initiative, and a leap of faith.