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The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) characterizes Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as a tool used to identify the environmental, social, and economic impacts of a project before decision-making. In straightforward words, Environmental Impact Assessment is an environmental policy that is used to give the environment its proper place in the decision-making process by improving the quality of information to decision-makers, so those environmentally sensitive decisions can be made paying careful attention to minimizing impacts, improving the planning of activities and protecting the environment. Therefore, to find ways to adversely reduce impacts, EIA takes into account inter-related socio-economic, cultural, and human-health impacts, both beneficial and adverse on the environment. 

Background of EIA

EIA gathered popularity during the 1960s in developed countries as it can potentially mitigate environmental impacts and promote better environmental conditions. In light of the handiness of this administration device, it has been acknowledged worldwide and has been accepted by the international community and incorporated in various international environmental instruments. It began in the US with the coming of the New Environmental Policy Act, 1969. In the 1970s many developed nations adopted this policy and ultimately in 1980, the World Bank adopted EIA for funding major developmental Projects.

EIA in India

The emergence of the sustainable development concept was an important factor in the development of the EIA system in developing countries. In India, the involvement with EIA started in 1976-77 when the Planning Commission asked the Department of Science and Technology to examine the river valley projects from an environmental angle. Over the course, EIA got statutorily backed in India by the Environment Protection Act, 1986. Till 1993, Environmental Clearance from the Central Government was an administrative action and lacked legislative support. It was on 24th January 1994 when India notified its first EIA norms, which resulted in making Environment Clearance mandatory for expansion or modernization of any activity or for setting up new projects. Later in 2006, the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change notified the new EIA enactment which decentralized the process of EIA. It divided the projects into Category A – Environmental Clearance from Central Government and Category B- Environmental Clearance from Central Government. The government has redrafted EIA in 2020 to integrate the amendments and relevant court orders issued since 2006.

EIA 2020 the “Ease of doing business”

Earlier this year, the government redrafted EIA to integrate the amendments and significant court orders issued since 2006, and to make the EIA “process more transparent and expedient.” The 2020 draft appraises the political monopoly on the EIA process and supports the government’s discretionary power while restricting public engagement in safeguarding the environment. The main two noteworthy changes in the new draft are the provisions for post-facto project clearance and abandoning the public trust doctrine. Usually, under the Environment Impact Assessment, a public consultation process takes place where objections can be heard including from project-affected people and then the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC). EAC can then make a final assessment of the project and present it to the regulatory authority, but now it envisages two kinds of approvals namely environment clearance (EC) with the approval of expert committees and environmental permission (EP) without the approval of expert committees. The new EIA reduces the time of receiving a public under the reason of smoothing the process; notwithstanding, that it might simply leave local people with lesser opportunity to bring up criticisms. As firstly the data collectors do not pay respect to the indigenous knowledge of local people and secondly, the notification also provides that the whole process of public hearing itself shall be reduced. Therefore, if the public comments are not considered at an early stage, it could lead to conflict at a later stage

of project clearance.

The EIA draft likewise absolves a long list of projects from public consultation further rendering its credibility as erroneous. It permits projects that violate the Environment Protection Act to apply for clearance, thus legalizing projects that have already been operating without approvals from the EIA were never sought or granted. This allows for more leeway and may create a great deal of space for errors. While projects concerning national defence and security are naturally considered strategic, then the government gets to decide on the “strategic” tag for other projects. It further says no information on “such projects shall be placed in the public domain” which opens a window for rundown leeway for any project deemed strategic without giving any clarification. In totality, the EIA 2020 draft dilutes public consultation, institutionalized ex- post environmental clearance falls short of what it proclaimed.

Conclusion

The consultation process of EIA should not be diluted as it impacts the whole nation. There are a large number of communities whose lives mainly depend on the state of the environment. Any radical changes in EIA will directly affect the living and working states of these individuals and will risk the protection of the diversity of the country’s forests and our source of water. Therefore, it becomes imperative that EIA 2020 ought to be redrafted. In recent times India has seen major occurrences that shake and break the standards of EIA and its norms. The LG Polymer Plant in Visakhapatnam, where the styrene gas leak occurred on May 7, revealed that the plant had been running for over twenty years without clearances. A comparative incident was also accounted on May 27, were due to faulty adherence to environment norms, the natural gas of Oil India Limited which had been working for more than 15 years without getting earlier assent from the Board in eastern Assam had a blowout and caught fire. This caused severe damage to the livelihoods in the region loaded with biodiversity. Hence the final law to come, concerning EIA should balance both the environment and the economy.

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