Recently, the websites of three youth-run environment collectives—LetIndiaBreathe, ThereIsNoEarthB and FridaysForFuture India—were blocked. While all three have been campaigning against the new draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, the situation, however, took a turn for the worse for Fridays For Future India (FFF India).

FFF India is a volunteer-driven movement for climate action and justice. It is inspired by the global Fridays for Future movement launched by Swedish youth-activist Greta Thunberg.

On 12 July, FFF India received a notice, charging them under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The notice stated that the website depicts “objectionable contents and unlawful activities or terrorist act”. The notice was based on a complaint by the Union Minister for Environment, Prakash Javadekar, that he was receiving multiple emails with a subject name similar to “EIA 2020”. Later, the Delhi Police withdrew the notice, citing a “clerical error”. The environment collective also received a notice under the IT Act, which too was later withdrawn.

With the deadline for public consultation on the draft EIA 2020 fast approaching (August 11), The Citizen spoke with Gangotri Chanda, a volunteer with FFF India, about the campaign against EIA 2020 and legal struggles emerging from the notice served.

TC: What is wrong with the EIA 2020 draft?

Gangotri Chanda: The proposed draft violates several provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and other laws which protect the rights of the local communities.

The draft also restricts the functioning of the environmental experts and scientists in the environment clearance processes.

Draft EIA 2020 has a problem with definitions. It provides narrow definitions of eco-sensitive areas and also leaves out numerous protected areas from its definition—such as reserve forests, village forests, wetlands, coasts, etcetera.

Also, it provides definitions of terms in favor of violators or polluters or industrialists. For example: Subclause (60) [Pg. 8] “Violation” means cases where projects have either started the construction work or installation or excavation, whichever is earlier, on site or expanded the production and/or project area beyond the limit specified in the prior-EC without obtaining prior-EC or prior-EP, as the case may be.

In this definition, there is no mention about projects which violate conditions of environment clearance granted by the regulatory authority.

Draft EIA 2020 allows post-facto approval. Without prior environmental clearance, various projects like dump mining of major minerals including coal, acids manufacturing, all projects of airports and heliports, inland waterways, highways, expressways, multimodal corridors, ring roads, elevated roads will get approval. These projects shall not be required to be placed before the Appraisal Committee, hence these projects have been exempted from undergoing EIA processes.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of India has disapproved the concept of post-facto environmental clearances to industrial projects that are initiated without a clearance.

The draft is violator-friendly. According to Clause 22 Subclause (1), the cognizance of the violation shall be made on the 'suo moto' application of the project proponent. Suo moto means on its own motion, i.e. in the acknowledgment of violator. Also according to that subclause, other than Government Authority or Appraisal Committee or Regulatory Authority, no scientists, environmental specialists, wildlife specialists, or common people can cognize violation.

Over 40 harmful projects have been exempted from public consultation.

According to the draft, all projects concerning national defence and security or involving other strategic considerations, as determined by the Central Government, no information relating to such projects shall be placed in public domain. But there is no definition of the "strategic" provided in Draft EIA 2020. It may be defined according to the ease of industries, businesses, corporates, capitalism, rather than the rights of common people.

There is also less possibility of a public hearing. If applicable, the public hearing period has been shrunk. According to the draft, a minimum notice period of twenty days shall be provided to the public for furnishing their responses. 20 days is too short a time to respond for local affected people and others who have a stake in the environmental impact of the project(s).

TC: How does EIA 2020 affect the environment and local communities?

Chanda: Encroachment in eco-sensitive zones/areas due to lack of proper environmental clearance, and the narrow definition of the same, may lead to zoonotic contamination and as a result of that, there are ample possibilities of emerging new epidemic or pandemic like COVID-19.

Due to deforestation for new projects, carbon sink will be reduced, and also habitat loss of ecologically connected biodiversity (including us) will increase and extinction will be faster as well. All these will lead to more breakdown of ecological and environmental balance, heading to climate catastrophe.

As we can experience now, due to extreme weather events like supercyclone, heatwaves, floods, drought, weather like snowfall in Rajasthan, we will lose our healthy environment which will lead to the emergence of insects, like locusts, heading to food scarcity. Also, farming-harvesting will be affected due to climate change and extreme weather events.

All these crises may lead to a more severe situation than lockdown, social trauma, etcetera which I can't explain or imagine.

TC: What is Fridays for Future (FFF) India doing against EIA 2020?

Chanda: Before the website was taken down, FFF India used to facilitate a framework through their website so that individual senders can send the email from their own email IDs.

The suggestion or public response on the Draft EIA 2020 is invited by the government as we can see on the very first page of the draft. Now the email campaign is on hold, but FFF India is continuing to create awareness of the Draft EIA 2020 through social media.

TC: What is the reason behind the government sending FFF India legal notices? Did the notice impact FFF India or its actions against the EIA draft?

Chanda: We have no idea why the notice had been sent. Due to the website being taken down as a result of that notice, the email campaign went on hold, but FFF India is continuing to make people aware of the facts through social media.

TC: How did FFF legally tackle the notice stating it's charged under the UAPA? What legal struggle did FFF go through?

Chanda: On July 10, when we got to know that the website was taken down, we contacted Internet Freedom Foundation. A response was sent to the Delhi Police on behalf of FFF India on July 22.

TC: What is your take on web censorship of environmental activism and how did FFF India deal with the same?

Chanda: Since the starting of this movement Fridays For Future, while demanding climate justice and mitigation action against the climate crisis, we never got any response from the authority side. Now, in this case of website takedown, there was a response.

According to the tech team, an approximate number of 80,000 emails have been sent by the public. So, I am realising that being united in a major number may fulfill our demand.

We have to make people aware of the science so that a major number of people can demand fruitful climate action on the basis of the best available scientific facts. FFF India is also continuing to make people aware of the facts regarding the climate crisis besides the Draft EIA 2020 through social media.

TC: According to you, what changes should be made in the Draft EIA 2020?

Chanda: There should be a proper scientific definition in the Draft EIA 2020, such as eco-sensitive zones/areas, reserve forests, village forests, wetlands, coasts, etcetera.

There should be a provision for the functioning of the environmental experts and scientists in the environment clearance processes.

Every project should undergo prior environment clearance (EC) process and the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process as well.

There should be enough time for proper evaluation rather than compromising with the natural environment and the risks for the common people.

All applications and EIA related documents should be made public at the earliest. Also, there should be enough time for notice period to the public for furnishing their responses.

The Draft EIA 2020 should be translated in every language and there should be some sort of representation so that common people can understand, without putting in much effort.

There are many more.

TC: How is FFF going to proceed with the campaign against EIA 2020?

Currently, the email campaigning is on hold, but Fridays For Future India is continuing to make people aware of the facts regarding the Draft EIA 2020 through social media.