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At the #MahimBeachCleanup initiative in Mumbai. Photography by Aaryav Mitr.

This is why India’s draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 should shock and scare you, even if you’re not a ‘tree-hugger’

Most people I know have never heard of , what it means and why it’s become such a hot topic recently. In fact, even I only recently heard about it and it terrified me. That’s probably because even though I’m interested in social issues, environmental causes and read the news regularly, mainstream media doesn’t cover such policy developments enough to make people really listen or question what’s going on.

I’m simplifying the situation to make it accessible to more people, especially my friends who I know would care about this if they felt like they were in a position to control or change what’s going on.

EIA stands for Environmental Impact Assessment and it’s important because it’s basically a set of policies, processes and tools which is used to analyse the social and environmental impacts of any new development / infra / construction project before it’s given a go ahead.

In simple terms — if someone (a govt entity, a private company, an infra group) wants to move ahead with a new project (a dam, a road, a building etc.), it has to undergo this assessment to see what are the pros and cons of the project — will it damage local communities, what emissions will it cause, how are they going to mitigate the negative impacts, what’s the cost, will it destroy natural habitats and resources etc. If the damage being done is too high — the project shouldn’t get clearance.

You can see why it’s important to have such checks and processes exist — to make sure that we’re growing, building and developing our countries SUSTAINABLY. Meaning that we’re preserving what needs to be taken care of, that the project creators are responsible for the damage that they’re doing and can be held accountable (think of gas leaks, flood risk, displacement of people, garbage and waste disposal etc.)

This year, the govt has drafted a new version of this set of policies — called EIA 2020. Instead of improving the policies, making them more effective, stringent, thoughtful and in line with the concerns of the climate crisis, social crisis and more recently, the ongoing pandemic — the govt has actually DILUTED and REDUCED the policies to favour industrial projects, unsustainable development and polluting businesses. The new draft removes a lot of the critical components of the original EIA and this is incredibly scary, dangerous and devastating — for all of us.

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A snapshot of recent news coverage about the EIA 2020 and why it’s problematic

What does the new EIA 2020 draft mean?

  • Projects without environmental clearance can actually be legalised, and it makes it easier for polluting businesses to get approvals for their projects, instead of making it harder for them. (e.g. the LG Polymer Plant related to the gas leak in May has been running for 2 decades without clearance).
  • Those violating rules or regulations, have to SELF REPORT these violations. Moreover, violations can ONLY be reported by govt or the project members, NOT concerned citizens (that’s essentially like asking a criminal to turn themselves in and report their crimes, without giving people a right to report crimes done to them).
  • It doesn’t require any public hearing or public consultation for many projects (meaning people can’t object or complain if a project is detrimental to them). Even the window that exists for public to share their opinions has been shortened from 30 days to 20 days, giving people less time to object.
  • More projects are included in the list that don’t need to get EIA clearance AT ALL! (e.g. Expansion of roads and highways, modernisation of irrigation projects etc. that leave local communities homeless)
  • The definition of eco-sensitive zones that need protection has been made weaker (which means any areas with rich biodiversity, or natural resources won’t be as protected, and can be used more easily for infra / development projects)
  • Infra / development projects can be expanded more easily (once they begin with a small project, it becomes easier to keep expanding it with less and less obstacles or hoops to jump through)
  • Takes away people’s ability to go down any legal route if they want to complain about projects or are concerned about environmental impact
  • If projects have already violated any rules, it makes it easier for them to get ‘post-facto’ clearance and keep moving forward in the name of ‘economic growth’. This means that if a project has already violated a bunch of rules, they can make amends by simply paying a fine and moving on. It sort of legalises a ‘pollute now and pay later’ attitude.

Did you know?

  • Prakash Javadekar, our Minister for Environment, Forest & Climate Change is also the Minister for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprise? Is this not a massive conflict of interest? One is meant to act as a check on the other — there cannot be any impartiality or sense of balance if these two positions are held by the same person
  • Why is this being done? In the name of making it easier to do business, and to stimulate ‘economic growth’. In actuality, to favour projects that make money while taking little cost or responsibility for their negative impacts. This only focuses on infrastructure development, without paying any attention to what the country really needs to progress — more sustainable development that reduces inequality, and improves the lives of local communities and the already disadvantaged.
  • Multiple govts have used EIA as a weapon and tool against the indigenous people and those who depend on land, forests and lakes for their livelihood. They justify diverting and destroying their resources, and divert them towards industries
  • During the pandemic, forest clearances were being given via VIDEO CONFERENCE. How can you assess environmental impact of projects solely based on video calls? Normally, these processes take months and years to approved — they’ve been hurried and cleared extremely quickly during lockdown.
  • In our country, don’t be fooled by the names of these ministries of bodies. Being called the National Board for Wildlife or the Ministry of Environment doesn’t mean that the work they’re doing is to PROTECT wildlife or environment. It appears that it’s often just to liaise and get approvals to encroach upon nature and allow their destruction.
  • Almost every social / environmental group in the country is fighting against this. If you care about clean air, beautiful landscapes, nature travel, animal protection or just generally want to live in a clean and healthy country — you should be opposing this violation of your rights.
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Sanctuary Nature Foundation has been actively campaigning to protect the biodiverse Dibang Valley from the proposed Etalin Hydro Project.
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Articles from Let Me Breathe’s website questioning the govt’s development projects

The effort to silence and hide

  • The new draft was brought up just before lockdown — and there was a rush to get it passed DURING the lockdown. Why? Because it’s easier to make such changes while people are distracted, unable to protest and media is busy covering other news
  • Non profit, youth and activist groups like Let India breathe, Fridays for Future India and There Is No Earth B have been campaigning actively against this new draft, and have been spreading information to make people aware of what’s happening. About 10 days ago, the govt BLOCKED their websites, without ANY notice, to try and censor them. They were not told who blocked them, why they were blocked or when / how to resume activity. This is a clear and direct effort to silence those speaking the truth and to prevent further objections from coming in.
  • The Internet Freedom Foundation is helping these groups fight this censorship legally, which is an assault on their freedom of speech, our freedom to access information and everyone’s right to protest.
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Memes and accessible / humorous content on around EIA 2020 created by Let India Breathe, shared on Instagram

Why am I writing all of this?

  • Yes there are plenty of groups fighting against this, and there are thousands of people who have signed petitions and sent emails to prevent this from happening. But it isn’t enough — we need much more public outrage to make sure ‘the environmentalists’ aren’t silenced and their work is seen through
  • We need to go beyond echo chambers of people who already care — and we need to rope in people who could care / should care / might care and help them see why this affects them (even if not directly or immediately)
  • At a time when scientists, virologists, public health experts, environmentalists and govt leaders are acknowledging that this pandemic and others (both past and future) arise because of human encroachment on wildlife, how can we possibly think of or allow further disregard for the environment?
  • This is in the broader context of people being denied their rights, and fighting for us to live in a real democracy. It’s a fight for access to honest information, and for a better future. If you hope to live in a country that is clean, that is safe, that is fair, that is just, that has hope — then fight for your rights, and refuse to let changes like this happen. We all know that real change comes from the top — and you stopping policies like these from becoming permanent law, is your way of facilitating top-down change.

I’m not an expert on any of this — I don’t have a law degree or any scientific expertise, but I’m writing this from a place of common sense and passion for a cause. If I’ve made any mistakes in my facts, please feel free to correct me. If you want to know more, or need access to more detailed information, I’m sharing a list of resources below. I’m not going to lie, my loved ones think I’ve found a new obsession and joke about me becoming ‘an over-emotional activist’ — but that’s absolutely okay with me. This is coming from a place of increasing awareness, a desire to know more, to question what sounds wrong to me and to fight for what I believe in.

It’s unfair and unjust to have people working so hard on ground, both individually and in small groups, but all their efforts being cancelled out when laws like this are passed. It means that we keep putting the burden on people to take individual action and change, while making sure that the law, policy and justice is all stacked in the favour of big businesses.

The more that I’ve gotten involved in groups and causes like these, the more I’ve seen how much we can and need to lean on each other. We’re all fighting for different causes, but they’re all the interlinked, and they all impact one another. If you hope to make a difference to your cause, through your means, it’s important to support the wider community in their battles as well. Only then can we collectively see our hopeful visions becoming reality.

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A photograph I took of a tiger in Ranthambore, Rajasthan

Take action here

Further websites, resources & articles for more info

Thank you to and for helping me write this article, you can reach out to both of them to know more about the EIA 2020 and how to fight it.

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