Retired civil servants have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash to withdraw the proposed Environment Impact Assessment Policy 2020 and replace it with a “more sensitive” -people and habitat friendly- policy.

The letter is as below:

As former civil servants of the All-India and Central Services, we have been commenting from time to time on the rapid deterioration of constitutional and fundamental human values in public policy and governance. While this decline cannot be attributed to the present government alone, the current arbitrariness in policy making, and the complete disregard for institutions and processes which act as a check on such arbitrariness, has been unprecedented.

A particularly glaring example is the way in which issues concerning forests, biodiversity and the environment are presently being handled. Hundreds of projects which threaten the environment and our precious natural resources have been cleared in unseemly haste, after shoddy and superficial scrutiny, disregarding comprehensive long term impact analysis.

Even during the current period of Covid-19 lockdown, full and partial, several score more project proposals are listed for appraisal by the various expert committees This is regardless of the fact that during this time it is neither possible to make field visits to the project sites nor ascertain local concerns through public hearings. While physical meetings of the expert committees cannot be held, the proposals are sought to be cleared through video conferencing.

As one of the 17 mega-biodiverse countries in the world and as a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, India has a special responsibility to see that its wealth of flora and fauna is not destroyed through unthinking action. A significant part of this biodiversity is found in India’s pristine forests. Yet, in recent times, the MOEFCC has given a spate of approvals to projects in protected areas.

Notable among these are the approval for extension of coal mining in the Dehing Patkai rainforest of Assam, the largest tropical evergreen rainforest in north-east India, part of an elephant reserve and home to endangered species such as the Malaysian sun bear, the hoolock gibbon and other animals; the laying of transmission lines, broadening of highways and doubling of a railway line by diverting extensive areas of forest land in the largest protected area in Goa, (viz. the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mollem National Park) again known to be rich in wildlife; and the diversion of 778 acres in the biodiversity rich Rajaji National Park, in Uttarakhand, to create facilities for pilgrims who will gather for the Kumbh Mela festival at Haridwar, in early 2021.

In the past, some efforts had been made to protect these biodiversity rich forest areas, at least from extractive industries. For instance, in 2010, forests were divided into ‘go’ and ‘no go’ areas, with no coal mining being permitted in ‘no go’ areas. This was done in consultation with Coal India, knowing well that 30 % of the coal mines were located within these densely forested ‘no go’ areas.

Unfortunately, the MoEFCC has decided to change all this. There will no longer be any ‘no go’ areas. Instead forests will be classified into high, medium, and low conservation areas, and it will be left to the Ministry’s discretion whether or not to clear a project in a ‘high conservation’ area. Nothing will be totally out of bounds.

It is well known that the many zoonotic diseases which have created pandemics in the world and posed a serious threat to human health – SARS and MERS, Ebola, the Nipah virus and the current Covid-19, are the result of disturbing the forest habitat of several endemic species. Experts predict that more such diseases, caused by greater human-animal interaction, are likely to arise in the future. Yet, in India, no serious thought seems to be given to entering into more and more pristine forest areas.

But by far the most serious and long lasting blow to protection of the environment is the proposed modification of the EIA policy of 2006. The EIA Policy is framed under the Environmental Protection Act, 1986. Section 3(1) of the Act states that “the Central Government shall have the power to take all such measures as it deems necessary or expedient for the purpose of protecting and improving the quality of the environment and preventing, controlling and abating environmental pollution.” The new EIA policy does nothing of the kind. It purports to impose ‘certain restrictions and prohibition’ on development projects and to make the process of granting environment clearance ‘more transparent and expedient’. However, it is clear that what the amended policy really intends to do is to considerably dilute the existing process of granting environment clearances and to prevent any public scrutiny of the project proponents’ actions.

Many of the changes have, in fact, been proposed to circumvent the past decisions of the National Green Tribunal and the Courts. Some of the more serious changes that the proposed EIA policy contemplates are: (a) grant of post facto approval to projects which may have started, or increased in size, without prior environmental clearance, on payment of a penalty. This makes nonsense of the requirement of prior clearance; (b) reclassifying projects and activities to put several polluting ones such as thermal power, cement and chemical fertilizer plants into a category (B2) which require minimal scrutiny; (c) excluding the need for public consultation for a number of projects where such consultation was earlier necessary - this includes all building, construction and area development projects, and anything declared ‘strategic’ by the government; (d) where such consultation is still necessary, reducing the time available to the public to make objections; (e) specifying that no reports regarding violation of the conditions of environmental clearance will be entertained from anyone other than the project proponent or a government authority.

That the government was not really interested in getting responses from the public on the draft EIA Policy 2020, or acting on them, is obvious from the fact that the draft notification was available only in English and Hindi and was only on the Ministry’s website until 30 June, and, despite requests that more time should be given for responses, due to the ongoing pandemic, no heed was paid to such requests. It was only when the Court stepped in that the last date for receiving responses was extended from 30 June to 11 August 2020 and the draft policy was directed to be made available in 22 languages.

The model of development the government wishes to follow has little to do with the principles of sustainable development. Development has come to mean a manic frenzy of activity, resulting in the depletion and pollution of rivers and water bodies, ravaging of oceans and coasts, and the wanton cutting down of forests; Local bodies and those whose very survival depend on such forests, oceans, coasts and natural wealth are rarely consulted. This perverse growth has been fuelled by a nexus between governments, both at the Centre and the States, political parties, big corporates and the contracting oligarchs. It is becoming increasingly evident that safeguarding the interests of this nexus is more important than conserving our natural heritage.

Honourable Prime Minister and Environment Minister, may we point out that the government is not the owner of our natural resources that it can do whatever it wants with them. It is a trustee on behalf of the people whose ‘commons’ these resources are.

The right to a clean, green and healthy environment is a part of our Fundamental Rights under Article 21 of the Constitution; and the dilution of regulations, policies and procedures aimed at protecting the environment contravenes these rights. Protecting the environment is also a part of the Directive Principles of State Policy under Article 48-A and the Fundamental Duties of all citizens under Article 51-A(g).

We, therefore, request you to be more sensitive to these constitutional obligations by placing ecological and environmental priorities higher than rapacious and exploitative ‘development’.

We urge you to withdraw the proposed EIA Policy 2020 altogether and replace it with a more sensitive policy, which is people and habitat friendly.