NEW DELHI—With less than a week left for the official deadline for public consultation on the controversial draft Environment Impact Assessment notification 2020, the Delhi High Court on Friday asked the union environment ministry to respond to a public interest litigation that seeks extension of the consultation period till September 30.
The court has asked the union environment ministry to reveal its stand in court on Monday about whether it will allow more time for public consultations, as requested in the PIL filed by environment conservationist Vikrant Tongad, or oppose the plea. The petition claims that the end date in the ministry’s draft notification for public consultations is confusing.
On Thursday, HuffPost India had reported, based on official documents accessed through the Right to Information, that environment minister Prakash Javadekar had overruled his own ministry officials’ recommendation of extending the public consultation period till 10 August 2020, insisting on 30 June 2020 as the official deadline.
Javadekar’s controversial decision is important as it lends credence to the claims, made by people in emails while responding to the draft EIA notification 2020, that the Narendra Modi-led government is evading meaningful and participatory public scrutiny of its actions by using the coronavirus lockdown to ram through controversial dilutions to an important environmental law.
The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) released the controversial draft EIA notification 2020 for public consultation online on March 23, just two days before the all-India lockdown began, and set May 22 as the last day for receiving public feedback. The draft was, however, officially published in the gazetteer only on April 11. Responding to sharp criticism, though, the ministry issued another notification, granting time till June 30 for the public to send its feedback.
It is these allegedly confusing dates which are now one of the key grounds cited in the public interest litigation filed before the Delhi High Court by environment conservationist Tongad. The petition also emphasises restriction on people’s mobility as one of the grounds for requesting the court to direct the environment ministry “to extend the notice period to the public, in the draft EIA notification 2020 until 30 September, 2020 or till such further period till the Covid-19 lockdown/ restrictions subsist.”
The draft EIA notification 2020 is a compilation of violations.Vikrant Tongad
Speaking with HuffPost India on Friday evening, Tongad said he would “request” the environment ministry to extend the consultation period till 30 September 2020.
When asked why he has filed a PIL seeking more time and what are his reasons for being critical about the notification, the Greater Noida-based activist said the draft document is merely a “compilation of violations” and there are “multiple concerns” about its provisions. He mentioned two specific ones.
The first is the provision for allowing project proponents to receive environment clearances after they have constructed their projects. This is called post-facto clearance. “It has been given in the past but it was a certain window for a specific period according to a court order or MoEF&CC order. But now an official tag has been given to this practise by making a provision, regularising it. This is the major flaw in the EIA. It defeats the purpose of the EIA notification. Environment Impact Assessment is done prior to the completion of the project. Post-facto provision says post completion of the project. So what is the purpose of the assessment left?” he said.
The second important problem, Tongad said, is about the reduction in time for conducting consultations with people affected by projects. “Public hearing time has been declined from 30 days to 20 days. This is not right ethically, legally and technically. This is inadequate,” he said.
The young environment activist, in his petition, has also requested the court to direct the ministry to “make translated copies of the draft notification available across the country in the official vernacular languages mentioned in the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution, and upload the same on all its websites including those of the Environment Ministries of all the States as well as those of the State Pollution Control Boards.”
The petition has also stated that the ministry must not only make its decisions based on representations received by those who can send their comments over email, as it did previously, but also give more time for those who would like to send their comments through the postal system. This system, he noted, was not fully functional yet, which made it necessary for more time be given for consultations.