Draft EIA against democracy, environment: Jairam Ramesh

Anti-democratic, anti-environment, anti-public health: Jairam Ramesh on draft EIA

Jairam Ramesh

The draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020 has triggered a debate, pitching the Opposition against the government. Senior Congress leader and former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who first raised red flags over the government’s move, tells DH’s Sagar Kulkarni that the draft notification should be kept in abeyance as its seeks to regularise the ‘swalpa adjust maadi’ approach of granting approvals to development projects.

What are your key objections to the draft EIA notification?

Well, fundamentally, the draft EIA notification is deeply anti-democratic. It reduces the scope for public hearing. It completely eliminates the role of local communities to bring to the notice of the authorities violations of environmental approvals. A large number of activities have been exempted from the need for EIA. Secondly, I think it will have a detrimental impact on public health, because if you are going to do away with EIA and have regularised post-facto approvals. You are basically saying – you can set up the project, you need not have the clearance. We will regularise it for you later, after you have paid a fine.

Thirdly, the Central government is taking on huge powers of the states. The states should be appointing the state-level EIA authority. But here, the central government has taken it upon itself the responsibility. So, it is anti-democratic, it is anti-public health and it is anti-cooperative federalism.

But Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar says he is consulting everyone and has received lakhs of representations?

Twenty lakh representations have gone to the ministry on the draft EIA notification. This is a record. The last time you had such an unprecedented public response was in the TRAI net neutrality notification, when I am told 10 lakh representations were given.

The notification exceeds the Environment Protection Act. It is a subordinate legislation and cannot override the mother legislation. Environment Minister of Maharashtra, Aditya Thackeray, has written a very long letter to the minister highlighting very specific sections which go against the interest of coastal areas, which violate the conditions associated with the protection of the eco-sensitive zones. It is not just the environment, but also tribal laws, land laws which are going to be trampled upon by this draft EIA. I hope this draft notification is kept in abeyance.

The minister insists that you and others are just jumping at a draft and he is open to a review.

Well, if we do not respond to a draft what are we going to respond to? Once it becomes a final notification, it becomes very difficult to change it. Only when it is a draft, we have to give our comments. I would say why was he in a hurry to push it through during a lockdown, knowing fully well that many people may not be in a position to respond.

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How would these post-facto clearances affect the environment?

Everybody knows there are laws, there are standards, there are rules. This is a typical Indian jugaad. What they say in Kannada, ‘swalpa adjust maadi’. This is how environmental laws have been routinely flouted, and you come with a fait accompli. We should not encourage this at all. We should put our foot down – nobody can start a project without clearance. Period. That is the law. This post-facto approval is very, very dangerous.

Why is the government pursuing this?

Ministry officials said this is part of ease of doing business. If you loosen environmental laws, ranking in the ease of doing business goes up. But at what cost? We have these laws to protect not only the environment, but also to protect the people. (Look at) what has happened in the last four years. You have opened rich forest areas to coal mining, you have diluted pollution norms for thermal power plants, you have diluted coastal regulation zone rules, for development of coastal areas. You have systematically weakened the National Green Tribunal. Is all this ‘ease of doing business’?

In your letter to the minister, you suggest shutting down projects that do not seek approvals. Is it feasible?

Yes, there is power under Section 5 of the EPA. You can issue show cause notices and in case of repeat offenders, you can shut it down. Everybody talks of clean Ganga. There were a lot of industrial units between Kannauj and Kanpur, a 700 km stretch with sugar mills, distilleries, paper plants, leather plants. We issued show cause notices. And if they did not adhere and invest in pollution control measures within a specified time, they were shut down. Twenty-six units were shut down. As a country we are very happy to pass laws, but we are happier to bypass them. Time has come to enforce these laws.

The minister is saying he is imposing hefty fines before regularising projects. Is that an option?

No, I don’t (agree). You can have a one-time amnesty. I have no problem with a one-time amnesty, you know like Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme (VDIS). But to make this a regular part, anyone can set up a project and if they are found in violation, they can be regularised? That is very dangerous.

What is the role of the parliamentary standing committee

I called the meeting of the standing committee only after Mr Javadekar wrote to me saying he would welcome scrutiny by the standing committee. Till then, I had not even called a meeting. But six BJP MPs tried to prevent a discussion on the notification. So, I said if you are not going to discuss a draft are you going to discuss something that is completed. I deliberately called the ministry officials to give its background. There were 14 members who attended. Some members supported the notification, some members violently opposed the notification. I kept quiet. Because my role as chairman is to be umpire. I have to bring all points of view together. So, instead of appreciating what I am doing, Mr Javadekar is going around criticising me.

What are the red lines for you that the government should not cross?

I told you, post-facto approval is one red line. You have reduced the role of public, public hearings have come down. The public cannot bring to light violations – that is a red line. The large-scale exemption from EIA for a large number of projects – that is a red line. Expansions getting automatic clearances is a red line. I have written twice to the minister giving five specific points. Aditya Thackeray has raised several points, Kerala government has raised many points, the Tamil Nadu government has raised very many questions. I think they should pause now. The Covid-19 crisis is a public health crisis, it is also an environmental crisis and in the midst of this to bring forward a notification like this is very very detrimental to public health. I keep stressing, that by protecting the environment, you are protecting public health.