NEW DELHI — Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar overruled a recommendation by his own ministry officials to extend the time for public consultation about controversial dilutions proposed for a landmark environmental law to August 10, 2020, documents obtained by HuffPost India establish. Javadekar fixed the deadline for June 30 instead, giving the public 40 fewer days to respond.
The draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020, it is worth noting, was first uploaded on the Ministry’s website on March 23 — a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s so-called Janata Curfew, and a day before imposing a nation-wide lockdown which continues, albeit with significant modifications, to this day.
Despite the lockdown’s punitive restrictions, the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change received over 5,000 mostly-negative comments by April 22 over email making the case for more time for public consultations or withdrawal of the draft. Thus, the then Environment Secretary C.K. Mishra and his subordinates in the ministry suggested that time till August 10 be given for public consultation.
But documents show Javedekar overruled his bureaucrats’ suggestion of allowing a longer time frame for consultation and set the June 30 deadline without putting down any reasons in writing. His decision lends credence to claims that Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-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.
Speaking with this reporter, environmental lawyers and analysts explained some of the most controversial aspects of this draft notification. Advocate Parul Gupta said, the draft notification “attempts to legalise the violations committed by the project proponents by allowing projects which have already started construction or commenced operations without obtaining the necessary clearances on submission of a penalty amount”.
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She also mentioned two more problematic aspects in the draft. One, by reclassifying several projects, it puts many projects out of the “mandatory process of screening, scoping, preparation of EIA, public consultation and appraisal” by expert committees at the state level. Two, the draft excludes many ecologically significant areas that are protected under Indian Forest Act 1927, Wetland Conservation and Management Rules 2017, and other non-recognised ecologically fragile areas which are habitats of wildlife . An analysis report prepared by researchers at the Centre for Policy Research points out, among other things, the internal contradictions of the draft. “Decentralization is one of the rationales for the draft notification, but in contradiction to that it allows the Centre some powers to constitute the state level committees,” it notes.
These are just a handful of the problematic provisions of the Draft EIA notification 2020. Lawyers and analysts say more time is, therefore, needed to examine this and for wider consultations to be held.
HuffPost India reconstructed a timeline of events leading up to Javadekar’s decision to not grant more time for consultations on the basis of Right to Information requests filed by this correspondent.
When the environment ministry first uploaded the draft EIA Notification of 2020 on March 23, it gave the public till May 22 to respond. The Ministry’s decision was in-line with the normal procedure of allowing 60 days of public feedback on the notification before compiling and considering this feedback when drafting the final law.
Yet these were not normal times: The coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing lockdown had consumed all aspects of public and private life, transport links were snapped, shops and commercial establishments shuttered, air travel suspended, courts closed except for the most urgent matters, and Parliament sessions deferred.
On April 11, the draft notification — thus far available only on the ministry website – was published in the official Gazette of India. Here too, the final date for comment was listed as May 22, 2020.
On April 22, a month after the draft was first made public, file notings record a discussion involving Joint Secretary Geeta Menon and Dr. Sharath Kumar Pallerla, a senior scientist at the ministry and another scientist Dr. JD Marcus Knight, on the nature and amount of mostly-critical feedback the draft notification had received.
“Now you propose to make regressive changes to the EIA notification at a time when we simply cannot respond to your call for public comments. Is this democratic? Is this fair?MoEF&CC internal note summarising public feedback to Draft EIA 2020
The next day, on April 23, Pallerla prepared a note summarising what he said were 1,144 critical comments seeking that the notification process be deferred . One illustrative excerpt included in the note offers a flavour of the criticism:
“Now you propose to make regressive changes to the EIA notification at a time when we simply cannot respond to your call for public comments. Is this democratic? Is this fair? Is this even humane to make us more anxious about our environmental futures when we are struggling to cope with this coronavirus, this lockdown and the suffering of millions of our people?”
Joint Secretary Menon agreed, noting that she had received over 4000 such comments as well.
“Since the EIA notification and any change thereto is of great significance to the management of environment in the country as a whole and to the matter of access and utilisation of natural resources, there is some merit in the request to reconsider the time limit of 60 days that has been provided at present in view of the corona pandemic,” she wrote the same day.
Menon further noted that, in context of the Draft Battery Waste Management Rules, the ministry had agreed to extend the time frame for receiving feedback. “Accordingly, it is suggested that we may extend the time frame to a total of 180 days from the time of issue i: e 23 March 2020,” she wrote.
This would mean extending the feedback period till 10 August 2020.
Later that day, Menon’s superior officer Additional Secretary Ravi Aggarwal was also consulted, the documents show, and suggested the matter be revisited on May 15.
By May 4, the day the latest phase of the lockdown was announced, documents suggest bureaucrats in the environment ministry had arrived at a consensus. A special notification was drafted to extend the consultation period until August 10.
“In response to the Draft EIA Notification put up for public consultation, a large number of responses requesting for the notification to be withdrawn/kept on hold/extend the time for submission of feedback etc have been received,” Joint Secretary Menon wrote. “Accordingly, as directed, a draft communicating extension of time for feedback by a further period of 60 days from the date of publication in the Gazette i:e 11th April 2020 till 10th August 2020 is placed alongside for approval.”
The file notings make clear that then Secretary C.K. Mishra, the environment ministry’s top bureaucrat, was also in agreement with the plan.
The file was sent to Javedekar on the same day. Javadekar replied the next day with nothing more than his signature and “30 June 2020” penned in his own hand. Two days later, on May 7, 2020, the Press Information Bureau put out a press release.
“The Ministry is in receipt of several representations for extending the notice period expressing concern that the draft EIA Notification 2020 was published during the lockdown imposed due to the Corona Virus (COVID-19) pandemic,” the press release said. “Therefore, the Ministry after due consideration, deems it fit to extend the notice period up to 30 June, 2020.”
HuffPost India has written to Javadekar to understand his reasons for deciding the date. This report will be updated if he responds.