The government’s draft proposal to overhaul environmental impact assessment regulations largely ignores India’s climate crisis and does not address concerns on overexploitation of natural resources
Amidst a global pandemic, India is reeling from multiple environmental catastrophes. These include a recent cyclonic storm, desert locust infestation, a natural gas well blowout in a highly biodiverse area, and extreme flood-related situations in multiple states. Extreme weather events and climate-related disasters have increased exponentially in recent years.
India’s climate crisis includes regional scenarios ranging from melting glaciers to ocean acidification to desertification to floods, heatwaves and droughts. The recently-released report by the government’s own Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology — Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region — unambiguously confirms India’s extreme climate vulnerability.
Climate law and policy in India are highly fragmented, incoherent and ineffective. In 2017, Ridhima Pandey, then aged nine, approached India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT), seeking appropriate directions to be issued to relevant environmental authorities “to take effective, science-based action to reduce and minimise the adverse impacts of climate change in the country” and urging regulators “to assess the climate related issues while appraising projects for grant of environmental clearance”.
The NGT disposed the case in 2019 and found no reason to issue directions as sought by the petitioner. Pandey has since appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of India.
The truth is that climate change considerations simply do not feature in official environmental decision-making processes in India. The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations — first announced in 1994 and replaced with a revised version in 2006 — regulate activities that are potentially damaging to the environment.
Unfortunately, EIA reports in India usually provide no details on potential greenhouse gas emissions, mitigation and adaptation possibilities, or climate-specific impacts.
The entire system of EIA-based environmental clearances in India is deeply compromised and is effectively defunct. Never mind complex climate considerations, even basic evidence relating to egregious environmental impacts is routinely ignored and often misrepresented in the process.
Approved projects with environmental clearance (the clearance rejection rate is near zero) regularly destroy landscapes, biodiversity, cultural heritage and community life across India. This is nothing less than an ecocide in the making.
In 2016, a detailed empirically-grounded report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India pointed out numerous flaws in the environmental clearance process. In 2011, the Supreme Court of India indicted the flawed environmental clearance system.
The apex court mandated the appointment of an independent environmental regulator at the central level with regional branches. This is a binding legal obligation that the Indian central government has dragged its feet on for over nine years now.
Overhauling EIA framework
Despite the upheavals caused by the pandemic, the central environmental ministry is attempting to regressively overhaul the existing EIA regulatory framework. The proposed EIA 2020 regulations further centralise environmental decision-making in India and suffer from multiple flaws.
These include legalisation of environmental violations through a contentious post-facto clearance procedure, dilution of environmental compliance-reporting and public consultation requirements, and the central government’s unlimited discretion to exempt projects involving strategic considerations from the requirements of public consultation and information-sharing.
The draft regulations also fully or partially exempt a wide range of environmentally harmful projects from rigorous EIA requirements.
The lack of dissemination of these draft regulations in vernacular languages apart from Hindi, and the lack of meaningful efforts to proactively facilitate public deliberation on these proposed changes have generated widespread protests, multiple litigations and reactionary governmental repression across India over the past few months.
Missing climate considerations
What is particularly shocking about these proposed regulations is their woefully inadequate treatment of climate change. This serious flaw has not received much public attention so far.
The proposed regulations contain only cursory references to the requirement of emission details from combustion of fossil fuels and burning of waste. They mention generic requirements of details of renewable energy and energy efficiency considerations, along with requirement of details of micro-climate impacts of proposed building projects.
Adaptation, resilience, and climate justice considerations are conspicuously absent in this major effort at re-engineering India’s EIA regulatory framework. It appears that the central environment ministry has ignored the clear policy imperatives for urgent mainstreaming of climate considerations into all environmental decision-making processes in India.
Article 4.1(f) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change explicitly states an obligation on signatory countries, including India, to take climate change considerations into account. It is essential that detailed climate analysis, which includes carbon emission details and possibilities of exacerbating existing climate-related risks, be carried out at the time of the environmental clearance process.
Such analysis should provide an exhaustive assessment of carbon emissions, climate risks, and exacerbation of pre-existing climatic changes relating to temperature, groundwater, community resilience, biodiversity, rainfall patterns, forest cover etc.
Flawed understanding of development
Indian environmentalists have been protesting the steady deterioration of the country’s environmental regulations for many years. The governmental responses across the political spectrum have usually dismissed environmentally-conscious objections as obstructionist and “anti-development”.
The rhetoric usually employed by India’s political and governmental apparatus is that development in India requires that poverty is tackled through high national economic growth, which in turn requires relatively unfettered access to the country’s natural resources.
This imagination of development, which has remained unchanged since former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s celebrated speech at the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, ignores the fact that the real economic development in India has been disproportionately beneficial for a very small minority of the national and global super-rich.
Both development as well as economic growth in India have been secured on the backs of the country’s most vulnerable resource-dependent communities, and at the cost of non-human lives and diverse natural ecosystems.
Given India’s recognised vulnerability to climate change impacts, and the visible fury of nature currently unfolding across the length and breadth of the country, it is essential that the proposed EIA regulations be withdrawn.
The draft EIA 2020 shows simply no indication that the scientific, policy, legal, and moral considerations of climate change and its relation to India have been given careful thought. Even as a long-term, robust, comprehensive, participatory and transparent process of review and institutional reform is commenced, serious flaws within the existing system need to be immediately addressed.
Climate policy integration and honest re-assessment of the true costs of economic development must prominently feature in environmental decision-making at all levels.
The clear and present dangers of the climate emergency unfolding around us are symptomatic of the missing heart of India’s environmental law and policy. It is high time that this critical gap is acknowledged and addressed by the environment ministry.
Abhayraj Naik and Anjali Joisa are with Initiative for Climate Action (ICA), a non-profit based in Bangalore. ICA’s detailed submissions to the central environment ministry on the draft EIA 2020 contain further details on some of the assertions made here.