By Manju Menon & Kanchi Kohli*
In the last few weeks, there have been several critical commentaries, political statements and public opinions published on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) draft 2020. It shows the central government’s intention to yet again “simplify” the process of regulatory environmental approvals to many large infrastructure, energy and real-estate projects by exempting them from detailed scientific and public examination. The draft has provoked legal petitions in four high courts, and over 20 lakh public submissions have reached the ministry’s email address. The parliamentary standing committee on science and technology, environment, forests and climate change discussed the draft and asked for a wider public consultation.
This EIA draft can be seen as one of the many “stimulus” reforms that the Centre has designed to attract global financial investments to deal with India’s economic crisis exaggerated by the effects of the global pandemic. The Centre has also amended other laws to increase mineral extraction, reduce emission norms of coal power plants and privatise public sector assets. As critics have pointed out, if these reforms “roll out”, there are bound to be serious and still unassessed consequences to land, water, air, forests, wildlife, biodiversity and other natural entities that humans depend on. These policies could hasten climate change which is already transforming our natural environment in unforeseen ways.
But here are three reasons why weak environmental regulatory frameworks such as the draft EIA 2020 can impose massive socio-economic costs on the most marginalised groups in Indian society. Firstly, social impact assessments are part of EIA processes in many countries because the environment is legally defined in its broadest sense to include human societies. But in India, EIA processes rarely study the social environment and tend to be caste and gender-blind.
Even though the 1994 EIA regulation required the committee of experts that appraise these reports to include social scientists and environment health professionals, these areas of expertise are mostly left out of committees. In effect, projects are not understood for their social consequences even though every project involves the redistribution of land and other natural resources. EIA-approved dams and mines separate adivasis from their forest territories. Irrigation and industrial projects often divert water to politically powerful landed groups or industries and away from poor peasants usually belonging to marginalised caste groups. Land leases or sales are decided by land-owning men even though the loss of assets are experienced by the entire family. Such approved projects exacerbate socio-economic inequality. These effects can be so severe that they can undercut any marginal gains to the national economy.
Secondly, the EIA mechanism has no ability to prioritise and design socially useful projects. India’s urban and rural poor lack facilities such as dignified housing and power supply, health, education, waste management and many other services. These are important projects whose social benefits may far outweigh their environmental costs. But EIA regulations legitimise the promotion of government-backed, investor-friendly projects that generate private profits. The regulatory process fails to ask if these projects serve public purpose, create meaningful community assets and enhance dignity and freedoms for people. The East Kidwai Nagar government housing project built by NBCC in New Delhi ghettoises its residents according to their class of employment. Their New Moti Bagh project of 492 government residences “socially distanced” 500 units for “economically weaker sections” to the corner of an 110-acre plot. These EIA-approved projects amplify social hierarchies and spatial discrimination in our society.
Thirdly, EIA-approved projects have affected the livelihoods of large populations. The poorest in many parts of India were robbed of their lands by waves of bureaucratic land and forest transfers since the 1950s. Today, many of them who sustain their families by tilling common lands are being impoverished as these lands are handed to private industrialists without adequate social safeguards in terms of resettlement, jobs and benefit-sharing.
For example, several large corporate solar farms that are proposed on village common lands have carte blanche exemptions from EIA procedures. EIA mechanisms also do not provide safeguards to workers employed in approved projects against occupational diseases and accidents. The spate of recent explosions in industrial and mining projects should make us rethink EIA regulations. For socio-economic equality and justice, new EIA regulations should adopt ways to identify and examine the social impact of projects.
*Environmental researchers at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. This article was first published in https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/voices/