Tracing India’s Environmental Footprints with EIA 2020

EIA 2020 will have to re-assess its impact on India’s ecological balance even as the country’s aspires for its dream of a 5 trillion dollar economy.

A drop in seismic noise—the hum of vibrations in the planet’s crust” due to Covid 19 restrictions is just another discernible marker of the environmental impact of global industrialisation amidst a population exceeding 7 billion people. Even as carbon credits (Fig. 1) are traded worldwide, attempts were afoot to limit global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius as ratified by 189 countries in the 2016 Paris Agreement. In India, the draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification (EIA) 2020 has recently concluded its public discourse after agitated and contentious feedback from a majority of 17 lakh respondents against the dilution of the EIA process, particularly the exclusion of public consultation for many projects which could adversely impact the environment.

United Nations Carbon Offsets
United Nations Carbon Offsets | Source: United Nations Environment Programme

The inaugural EIA Notification in 1994 required public consultation for ‘all projects requiring environmental clearance from the Central Government’ as listed under 30 categories of its Schedule I. However, the due diligence involved in assessing environmental impact was skewed for “site specific projects such as mining, hydro-power, major irrigation projects, ports and harbours, prospecting and exploration of major minerals in areas above 500 hectares.” According to EIA (1994), the “decision regarding suitability or otherwise of the proposed site” had to be conveyed “within a maximum period of thirty days by the Central Government in the Ministry of Environment and Forests.” This was probably to quash the misgivings of people like Medha Patkar and the Narmada Bachao Andolan which caused the withdrawal of World Bank funding for the Sardar Sarovar Dam in 1993

As governments in independent India have forged ahead to improve the country’s economy after centuries of British plunder, a commitment to environmental impact assessment has largely been influenced by external factors such as the enactment of Environmental Protection Act (1986) after the Bhopal Gas tragedy; or even Indira Gandhi’s establishment of the National Committee for Environmental Planning and Coordination (NCEPC) in April 1972 in preparation of the first environmental conference held in Stockholm in June 1972. But the skewed balance of economic growth and environmental conservation/protection is just as evident in the EIA Notification (2020). 

With the Modi government’s push to support economic growth at the grassroots level, the focus has been India’s micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), growing from 6.33 crore MSMEs reported in the “MSME Ministry’s FY19 annual report.” According to the recent notification by the Ministry of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises, MSMEs are categorized by investment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment and turnover; ranging from INR 1 crore and INR 5 crore for a micro enterprise, to INR 10 crores and INR 50 crores for a small enterprise, extending to “investment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment not exceeding INR 50 crores and turnover less than/equal to INR 250 crores.” Even as the debate about public consultation continues, what is particularly disconcerting is that the government in its attempt to bolster Indian MSMEs has exempted many projects from prior-Environmental Clearance (pEC) or prior-Environmental Permission (pEP) such as  – 

Manufacturing of Linear Alkyl Benzene Sulphonic Acid (LABSA) from LAB; Chemical processing of ores/ concentrate; Manufacturing of Acids; Petroleum products and petrochemical based processing; and Manufacturing of paints, varnishes, pigments, intermediates (excluding blending / mixing).

Waste Management & Soil Contamination Image
Waste Management & Soil Contamination | Source: Memuco

The decentralization effected by EIA 2006 included a segregation of projects not requiring an “Environment Impact Assessment report” (Category ‘B2’). In EIA 2006, projects categorised as B2 did not require public consultation, similar to EIA 2020. However, the lack of accountability afforded to MSMEs in EIA 2020 is astounding considering the environmental impact of exempted projects. The unfettered manufacturing of products like LABSA, acids, paints, and petroleum/ petrochemical derivatives is especially alarming considering many of these processes are listed as generating hazardous waste in Schedule I of the Hazardous Waste Rules 2016. This undetected contamination by environmental pollutants is exacerbated by the fact that violation reporting is no longer the purview of Indian citizenry. 

According to Traverso-Soto, González-Mazo, and Lara-Martín, “the major fraction of synthetic surfactants are disposed down the drain to sewers… and sludges are also a potential source of contamination for soils, groundwater and adjacent rivers as they tend to contain high concentrations of organic contaminants and are often used in agriculture after anaerobic digestion.” Combined with an increase in EIA validity periods and reduced frequency of compliance reporting, the ambiguous jurisprudence of EIA 2020 is debatably unequitable in its attempt at environmental conservation and preservation. Although the shift to renewable energy is evident in the exemption from pEC or pEP for projects like “Solar Photo Voltaic (PV) Power projects, Solar Thermal Power Plants and development of Solar Parks,” the EIA 2020 will have to re-assess its impact on India’s ecological balance even as the country’s aspires for its dream of a 5 trillion dollar economy.

Cover Image: Supriti Malhotra