NEW DELHI—The union environment ministry ignored its own expert committee’s recommendations when they contrasted with specific requests made by industry lobby groups for the draft environment impact assessment notification (EIA 2020), claims a public interest litigation (PIL) filed in the Karnataka High Court by the Bangalore Environment Trust.
“The Draft EIA 2020 has been issued contrary to the recommendations of the Dr. Wate Committee (Expert Committee) constituted by the MOEF itself for the very purpose of issuance of the Draft EIA 2020, by merely accepting the requests of various Associations (including CREDAI, Detergent Manufacturer’s Association, Meat and Livestock Exporters Association, Induction furnace Manufacturers Association etc.),” says the PIL drafted and argued by Advocate Vanshdeep Dalmia.
Given this, it adds further, “...it is reasonably foreseeable that the process of considering the public objections qua the Draft EIA, 2020 would be an empty formality, a mere eyewash and fall on deaf ears.”
As HuffPost India reported earlier, this PIL has sought prohibition on the publication of a final notification based on the draft EIA 2020 as it has certain “regressive” provisions which it wants to be removed.
A closer look at the petition also shows that, based on official documents of the union environment ministry, the petitioner has included a detailed analysis about three inter-related things: a) the specific provisions requested by some influential industry associations, b) opinions about the requests expressed by the Dr S R Wate led committee and c) what the environment ministry finally published in the draft EIA 2020.
Based on this analysis, the PIL concludes that the draft law seeks to weaken the existing legal provisions for the protection of the environment in the EIA notification 2006. The petition also claims that the intention to ensure ‘ease of doing business’ is actually a ‘ploy’ to find a way around some judgments of the Supreme Court.
“The regression of the environmental norms apart from being without jurisdiction / in excess of the powers prescribed under Section 3 of the EP Act, do not satisfy the test of reasonableness under Article 21 having no nexus to the object that is sought to be achieved,” the petition asserts.
It adds further that, “the purported object of ‘ease of doing business’ is only a ploy to circumvent the provisions of the EIA, 2006 and the various judgments passed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court.”
As reported previously, the Karnataka High Court admitted this petition on September 7 and the environment ministry has been asked to respond to the assertions made in it.
WHAT BUSINESS LOBBIES REQUESTED, HOW MoEF&CC COMPLIED
While some requests made by industry groups and accepted by the ministry—according to the analysis presented in the PIL—involve substantial dilutions to existing norms, others are in contrast with new proposals made by the expert committee.
For instance, among the most prominent of these groups is the real industry lobby Confederation of Real Estate Developers Associations of India (CREDAI). It had been lobbying for doing away with the mandatory Corporate Environment Responsibility (CER) obligations on the real estate sector.
The Dr S R Wate led expert committee considered this request but rejected it stating that one specific sector cannot be favored over others. In other words, if other sectors were paying CER funds, the real estate sector should also do so. But the draft EIA 2020 proposes to tweak the CER definition in a way that the real estate industry would get what it wants. The petition has termed this a ‘procedural dilution’.
Based on official environment ministry documents that this reporter accessed under the Right to Information, HuffPost India has published a detailed report about this previously.
The analysis in the petition also cites the case of the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association, a lobby group representing the estimated Rs 20,000 crore meat industry. Even though the environment ministry was initially interested in bringing slaughterhouses under the strict regulatory regime of the Environment Impact Assessment notification 2006, and the expert committee recommended it to do so, the draft law released in March has not made any such proposal. Effectively, the association got what it requested and the expert committee’s recommendation was dropped.
It’s not just the influence of associations on the draft law, however. Even a request made by the former Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament (MP) from Gujarat, Jayshreeben Patel, appears to have prevailed over the recommendation of the environment ministry’s experts. Patel, who was the MP from the Mehsana constituency in Lok Sabha till 2019, had requested the environment ministry in 2018 to reclassify small scale units, especially those manufacturing synthetic organic chemicals, as category B2 projects to reduce the intensity of scrutiny that they have to go through before being granted environment clearance. Presently, these projects are categorised as A and B1 category projects, based on certain criteria.
The expert committee suggested this be done only in a limited number of projects, according to the criteria it laid down. But the ministry agreed with Patel’s request, the petition states, and the draft law proposes that all such small scale projects be categorised in the B2 category.
By reclassifying them in the B2 category, the level of scrutiny is reduced as they may no longer need to conduct an assessment through proper studies about the potentially adverse impacts on the environment and people residing in the vicinity of their projects. This assessment exercise includes conducting public hearings.
“The exemption granted to Micro, Small and Medium Scale Enterprises, apart from being highly regressive and in excess of jurisdiction under Section 3 of the EP Act is manifestly unreasonable and arbitrary in as much as, the corporate nature of an enterprise is irrelevant from an Environmental perspective/ standpoint and seriously violated the precautionary principle,” the petition states.
EP Act is short for Environment Protection Act 1986, India’s main law for the protection of environment.
“Furthermore, this regressive classification for micro enterprises is not based on any study or expert committee report and thus even otherwise is manifestly unreasonable, arbitrary and does not meet the muster of Article 14,” the petition adds.
These are just three instances from among the total nine cited in the PIL about industry groups or even some central government entities actively seeking dilution of environment laws or avoiding inclusion of certain kinds of projects and activities in the environment impact assessment regulatory regime. All these requests were directly contrasting with recommendations of the expert committee and yet they were accepted by the ministry and it reflects in the draft law.
To be sure, the Dr SR Wate Committee did eventually sign off on the draft notification that the ministry released. But whether the committee or any of its members dissented at least internally against or officially commented upon the ministry’s decision to not heed its recommendations when they clashed with requests from lobby groups is unclear from the files accessed by this reporter as well as the petition mentioned above. That’s because the minutes of the committee’s meetings have not been maintained for the last few months during which it was apparently deliberating the most far reaching proposals that have attracted the greatest public criticism.
The inferences and analysis drawn in this PIL are based on meetings held by the expert committee in 2019 while the committee met the last time on 5 and 6 March 2020 and the draft was published on the ministry’s website on March 12.
The committee was, as this report by HuffPost India explained in detail, formed in early 2018 to reclassify projects and issue a fresh notification by former environment minister Harshvardhan.