NEW DELHI—Ten days after the official deadline for public consultation about the controversial draft EIA 2020 passed, a senior environment ministry official wrote to cabinet minister Nitin Gadkari’s private secretaries in the two ministries led by him to seek their comments about the draft law on the direction of union environment minister Prakash Javadekar, according to official documents accessed by HuffPost India.
The revelation that Javadekar directed his officials to write to Gadkari to seek comments about the draft law days after public consultation concluded is significant because, as HuffPost India revealed , the union environment minister previously shot down a proposal by his officials to grant more time for public consultation about the draft and vetoed a shorter extension. This despite thousands of people writing to the ministry seeking withdrawal of the controversial draft citing its provisions as well as the difficulty of having a public consultation during the coronavirus lockdown.
On August 21, 2020, the environment ministry’s joint secretary Geeta Menon wrote to Rajgopal Sharma, Gadkari’s private secretary in the ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME).
“As you are aware, the Draft Notification of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020 was published in the official Gazette on 11th April 2020 for the information of the public so that they can convey any objections or suggestions on the proposals contained in the Draft Notification,” Menon said in her letter.
Without mentioning that the final date for public consultation had already ended on August 11, Menon further wrote in her letter, “In case, there are any comments and suggestions on the Draft EIA Notification, particularly in respect of MSME sector, I would request you to please consolidate and forward the same to this Ministry before finalisation of the Notification.”
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While Menon did not mention that she was writing in response to a specific direction by Javadekar, an internal note of the environment ministry drafted on August 19 by Sharat Kumar Pallerla, another senior official, and accessed by HuffPost India confirms this.
“As directed during the review of the suggestions on the draft EIA Notification, 2020, Hon’ble Minister directed to send a letter to Hon’ble Minister Road Transport and Highways; Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises,” Pallerla, a Director rank official in the environment ministry, wrote. “Accordingly, draft DO letter has attempted and placed as DFA for kind approval of Hon’ble MEFCC.”
DO is short for Demi-official, a form of communication in the Indian government which involves direct communication through letters between specific officials; while DFA is a short form of Draft For Approval. Also, for the purposes of the above cited note, MEFCC is a shorter version of ‘Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change’.
Even as Pallerla’s internal note mentioned Javadekar’s direction that a letter be addressed to Gadkari himself, another note by Menon on August 25 reveals that Additional Secretary Ravi Agrawal in the environment ministry asked her to write the letters to Gadkari’s private secretaries.
In her second letter sent on August 21— this time to Sanket S. Bhondve, Gadkari’s private secretary in the road transport ministry—Menon wrote, “In case, there are any comments and suggestions on the Draft EIA Notification, particularly in respect of Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, I would request you to please consolidate and forward the same to this ministry before finalisation of the Notification.”
In both letters, Menon did not mention a specific date by when her ministry expected the replies from both ministries. Also, in the official documents which confirm that these letters were sent because Javadekar directed his officials to write to Gadkari, there is no mention about whether the environment minister had directed his officials to mention a deadline by which Gadkari or his officials were expected to send the official replies containing comments on behalf of their ministries.
It is unclear if separate letters were sent to Gadkari as well––after or before letters were sent to his private secretaries. It appears the purpose was achieved by writing to Gadkari’s private secretaries.
Javadekar’s direction to his officials to seek comments from Gadkari’s ministries after the official end of the public consultation period shows the government has set a hierarchy of opinions.
This summer, as civil society groups and environmentalists said the disruptions of covid-related lockdowns had made it impossible for a normal public consultation on the draft EIA 2020, Javadekar’s decision to grant less time for public consultation was widely criticised.
Some activists petitioned the Delhi High Court to extend the deadline for public consultation. The court directed the environment ministry to extend its official deadline from June 30, which Javadekar had vetoed, to August 11, which was suggested by his officials in the first place.
When the Karnataka High Court later directed the environment ministry to conduct wider public consultations in local languages and warned that it may stay the publication of the final notification based on the draft if this wasn’t done, the Javadekar-led ministry claimed it was not legally obliged to do so. Effectively, it washed its hands off any responsibility to conduct public consultations about the controversial draft law beyond August 11.
Given this background, Javadekar’s direction to his officials to seek comments from Gadkari’s ministries after the official end of the public consultation period shows the government has set a hierarchy of opinions.
HuffPost India has written to environment minister Prakash Javadekar for comment. This report will be updated if he responds.
‘EXCLUSIONARY AND SELECTIVE’?
Veteran researchers and public policy watchers feel this instance does no credit to an already controversial and legally challenged process of public consultation in context with the draft EIA 2020—the Narendra Modi government’s proposed law for environment clearance.
“While there is nothing in law that stops the ministry from seeking additional inputs and advise, this present move is exclusionary and selective.” said Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher with Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research.
Kohli sees this special communication to Gadkari’s ministries as part of a broader pattern in which the scope of consultation with the public was restricted, while certain stakeholders were given preference and precedence in the course of the controversial consultation for the draft EIA 2020.
“The entire process of amending the EIA regulation reflects the preferential nature of the environment ministry’s rule making. From individual emails to project proponents to seeking specific comments from state level regulatory bodies, the ministry has already created a hierarchy of whose inputs matter in the finalization of the EIA 2020,” she said. “Citizens had to really push for space for exercising their democratic rights during a health emergency and faced great reluctance on the part of the ministry.”
While there is nothing in law that stops the ministry from seeking additional inputs and advise, this present move is exclusionary and selective.Kanchi Kohli, Legal Researcher, Centre For Policy Research
Venkatesh Nayak, who is Programme Head of the Access to Information Program at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said, “the process of public consultation becomes incomplete if it is conducted before the inter-ministerial consultation.”
Nayak explained that, under this sequence of consultation, “People will not have the benefit of knowledge of the entire width and amplitude of the government’s thinking before they share their own views. So the public consultation becomes a halfhearted process.”
Nayak said that public consultation ought to take place after all ministries have given their views, so that the public could respond to as complete a version of the draft law as possible. Such a process, Nayak said, “best serves the notion of democracy being government by consent of the people, not just through elections but between elections also.”