The draft environmental impact assessment (EIA) notification issued by the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in March dilutes the EIA process and encourages environment violations in case of big irrigation projects, alleged the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).

The SANDRP is a network of researchers and experts working on water and environmental issues. Amruta Pradhan, a researcher with the SANDRP, said the 83-page notification in its draft form rendered the environmental clearance (EC) process “non-transparent, undemocratic, unjust and unaccountable”.

“In the case of large-scale hydropower and irrigation projects, the SANDRP, through field studies, has routinely witnessed irregularities like poor quality of work, dishonest EIAs coupled with misinformation about the project, and inadequate or no impact assessment, to name just a few of the violations. The MoEF’s draft ensures no monitoring of these projects, let alone achieving compliance,” Ms. Pradhan said. If implemented, the MoEF’s draft will replace the 2006 EIA notification for future projects. The most significant change in the amended draft has been in respect of category ‘B’ projects, Ms. Pradhan said. (Hydro-electric projects lesser than 75 MW but higher than 25 MW fall in category ‘B1’)

Public consultation

While a significant slab of threshold limits is now pushed under category ‘B2’ projects, these projects are completely exempted from the EIA and public consultation process. Further, these categories have been kept fluid, she said. “This means that essentially, all the hydro-electric projects lesser than 25MW and irrigation projects that have a culturable command area between 2,000 and 10,000 hectares will not need an EIA or a public consultation for their appraisal,” she said.

Ms. Pradhan further said in the 2006 EIA notification, category ‘B’ project was treated as category ‘A’ project if the project fulfilled the ‘general conditions’, which meant if they were located (in whole or in part) within 10 km from the boundaries of protected areas, critically polluted areas, eco-sensitive zones, or inter-State and international boundaries.

“But as per the new notification, ‘B1’ projects fulfilling the general condition will be appraised by the expert appraisal committee, but they will no more be treated as category ‘A’ projects. This explicit clarification does seem to imply that they will undergo less rigorous appraisal,” she said.

Eco-sensitive zones

She feared that with the removal of such conditions, projects could now be proposed in dangerously close proximities of boundary of protected and eco-sensitive zones. The draft notification also stated that while projects concerning national defence and security or “involving other strategic considerations as determined by the Central government” would not be treated as category ‘A’, “no information relating to such projects shall be placed in public domain”.

“From this, it is clear that with the Centre deciding on the ‘strategic considerations’ for their projects, they are free to hide information from people under this rubric. This flies in the face of the Centre’s stated intention of making the EC process more transparent,” she said.

Ms. Pradhan said that the ambiguous nature of the draft raised a strong possibility that large projects proposed in Himalayan region or in the western ghats may be split on paper into smaller ones of 25MW, thereby escaping environmental scrutiny of any kind.

“How safe is it to allow these projects in the Himalayan region, which is highly vulnerable to high-intensity quakes, landslides and flash past disasters of Uttarakhand (Kedarnath), Himachal Pradesh and Nepal among other regions. These have shown how damaging such projects in these highly risky zones region could be,” she said.

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