The Ministry of Forest and Environment has come up with a set of new environment clearance rules and regulations vide an amendment in the Environment IMPACT Assessment Notification, 2006.

The draft of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 proposes a mechanism to legitimise some actions currently listed as violations, like projects starting construction without a valid clearance, dilutes rules by expanding the list of projects exempted from public consultation, and does not prescribe a robust post environment clearance monitoring system.

As per the draft notification, all projects and activities have been divided into three categories — ‘A’, ‘B1’, and ‘B2’ based on the potential social and environmental impacts and spatial extent of these impacts.

Under the amendment, the ministry has re-categorised all projects and activities in respect of bulk drugs and intermediates that were manufactured to address various ailments from the existing ‘A’ category to ‘B2’ category.

The projects that fall under Category ‘A’ require mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment that includes collection of baseline data and public consultations, while the projects falling under the ‘B2’ category are exempted of the assessment.

The re-categorization of the proposals has been done to facilitate decentralization of appraisal to State Level, in order to fast track the process.

In a new section “Dealing with violation cases”, the draft notification states that cognizance of environmental violations will be taken in four ways – Suo Moto application of the project proponent; or reporting by any government authority; found during the appraisal by Appraisal Committee; or any violation found during the processing of application, if any, by the regulatory authority.

As per the draft, the cases of violation will be appraised by the Appraisal Committee with a view to assessing whether a “project can be run sustainably under compliance of environmental norms with adequate environmental safeguards”, among other things.

If the assessment is negative, the project will be directed to shut down. If not, it will be appraised for ecological damage etc.  Such projects will have to pay a late fee depending on the size of the project. The company will also have to submit a bank guarantee valid for five years, equivalent to the amount of remediation plan with the state pollution control board.

The draft EIA notification proposes to be an update to the EIA of 2006 which specifies a minimum of 30 days for people to respond. The current update gives a minimum of 20 days of notice period to raise any queries. It also requires that the public hearing process be wrapped up in 40 days as opposed to the existing norm of 45 days.

The draft also lays out a procedure for dealing with non-compliance with conditions stipulated in the environmental clearance by projects. In cases of non-compliance, again project proponents can report it Suo Moto. The expert appraisal committee will discuss such non-compliance and make recommendations for a time-bound action plan to comply with the conditions and determine a bank guarantee to ensure compliance.

The validity of environmental clearances across the country were extended till June 30, 2020 by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change after the 21-day nationwide lockdown to control the spread of the novel Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) came into effect.

The projects are supposed to function under the terms and conditions, “notwithstanding any condition imposed in the respective Prior Environment Clearance”, according to a memorandum issued by the ministry, dated March 25.

The draft notification 2020 explains that “such violations being recurring in nature may come to the notice in future during the process of appraisal or monitoring or inspection by Regulatory Authorities. Therefore, the Ministry deems it necessary to lay down the procedure to bring such violation projects under the regulations in the interest of environment at the earliest point of time rather than leaving them unregulated.”

The draft EIA 2020 has also come under criticism from various environmentalists and activists across the nation.

A group of experts and researchers with Centre for Policy Research — Namati Environmental Justice Program said the EIA draft is not clear on third party monitoring.

“Our experience of missing public participation in the proposed ‘third party’ monitoring experience of environmental violations shows that in 235 cases environmental non-compliance has affected close to 3 lakh people,” said Manju Menon, senior fellow with CPR.

Environment lawyer Manish Jeswani says the new EIA draft is all about ease of business, ignoring the threats nature is giving us in the form of micro organisms. It proposes to simplify rules for expansion of projects, doing away with public hearings for many types of projects.

“The proposed draft, if brought into effect in present form, will bring disaster for environment and ecology of the country. It will be a huge setback for environment, forests and wildlife as all are interconnected,” said Jeswani.