A prescription for environmental failure - GulfToday

A prescription for environmental failure

BRP Bhaskar

@brpbhaskar

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

India Climate Change

The photo has been used for illustrative purposes.

On March 23 this year the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change released a set of draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) rules drawn up to replace the ones in force since 2006.

Instead of strengthening the regulatory system to protect the environment better and make life safe and secure for the people, they seek to weaken it to attract investors who find restrictions a hindrance to quick profits.  

The government gave the public four and a half months’ time to file objections to the draft rules.

The day after the rules were published the government imposed a nationwide lockdown to meet the Coronavirus threat. It is still in force though not in the same rigorous form all over the country.

The pandemic and natural disasters like floods and land slips that struck several states in the past few months did not persuade the government to go slow on the move to dilute environmental protection measures. It set its mind on pushing it through.

Environmental activists used social media to mobilise public opinion against the proposed changes.

Fridays for Future India (FFI), an enthusiastic group of youths, urged citizens to e-mail their views to the Environment ministry. The government tried to silence them by blocking their website. The Delhi police threatened to prosecute members of the group under the anti-terror law for flooding the ministry with e-mails.

Fortunately, the authorities realised they were on the wrong path and withdrew the notice issued to the group saying it was the result of a clerical error.

When the deadline for filing objections ended, the government had received more than 700,000 representations. That makes protection of the environment the issue which has evoked the largest public interest in memory.

India had witnessed the world’s worst industrial disaster when gas leak from a chemical plant in Bhopal, capital of Madhya Pradesh, killed at least 3,787 people and injured more than 574,000 others in 1984.

While the country was discussing the draft rules, gas leak occurred in a factory at Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. The factory had been working without obtaining clearances under the Environment Protection Act.

Against the background of such accidents and the propensity of businessmen to bribe their way around regulations, the proposed relaxations in EIA rules can only be viewed as a prescription for disaster.

Under the rules now in force, work on a project can begin only after environmental clearances are obtained through a process which includes a public hearing at which people living close to the project site can voice their fears and raise objections. The draft rules permit starting of work without environmental clearances.

An amnesty clause in the current rules provides for regularisation of a project started without clearances, by paying a penalty. The draft rules make amnesty a permanent feature. Projects can start operations without environmental clearances and the promoters apply later for clearances.

This clause violates a recent Supreme Court judgment which said the concept of ex post facto environmental clearance is against the fundamental principles of environmental jurisprudence.

The draft rules exempt a large category of businesses from the requirement of environment impact assessment. While the draft rules retain the provision for public hearing, they reduce its effectiveness by curtailing the time allowed for hearing of objections.

What the government plans to do is not a tinkering job but virtual dismantling of the system now in place.

The government will be making a mistake if it proceeds with the draft rules in the belief that the people’s objections can be overcome through repressive measures. They have a proven record of defeating mighty business houses, which posed threats to their lives and livelihoods.

Two decades ago the people of Kerala forced the house of Birlas to close down a factory which was endangering their lives by polluting air and water. The powerful support extended to the industrialist by the entire political class was of no avail.

More recently, resolute opposition by villagers forced the South Korean steel giant POSCO to abandon its plan to set up the world’s largest steel plant in Odisha, despite the support of the Central and state governments.   

 The wellbeing of the people must be the first priority of any government, more so of one that subscribes to the principles of democracy.  The rationale behind all developmental effort is economic uplift of the people. No activity that endangers their lives and livelihood can be justified in the name of development.

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