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Critics accuse India of bending environment rules for rich

Jesuit lawyer warns that the plans will be a 'major disaster' for the country's ecology

UCA News reporter, New Delhi

UCA News reporter, New Delhi

Updated: August 14, 2020 09:46 AM GMT
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Critics accuse India of bending environment rules for rich

Waves crash against a barrier erected at the site of a coastal road project on a promenade following recent heavy monsoon rains in Mumbai on Aug. 6. (Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP)

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Church activists and environmentalists in India are among critics of a government plan to change a vital regulation, saying it will adversely affect the ecology and millions of rural poor.

The federal Environment Ministry's deadline for the public to give feedback on the changes ended on Aug. 11. But activists fear the government could rush through amendments without making any substantial changes to the draft notification on environmental impact assessment (EIA).

The plans for amending the notification "will prove to be a major disaster to the country's ecology," said Father Shaiju Thomas, an activist Jesuit lawyer based in eastern India's Jharkhand state.

The ministry published the draft notification on EIA in March, seeking public opinion in amending the Environment (Protection) Rules of 1986. Part of the original rules stipulated that before starting any project, an assessment should be done on its impact on local people, the ecology and natural resources.

The draft amendment makes a series of exemptions. For example, it says projects considered "strategic" by the government will not need EIA and no information on "such projects shall be placed in the public domain." The exemption list includes all inland waterways and national highways projects.

Projects needing up to 150,000 square meters shall also be exempt from EIA. It also reduced the public's time to raise their objections about the project from 30 days to 20. The new rules also allow EIA to be done after a project starts in some cases.

"In short, the new law makes EIA technically defunct," Father Thomas told UCA News on Aug. 13.

"Implemented with suggested changes, it will have no power to check the damage to the environment and will take away people's opportunity to express an opinion about their lives, livelihood and environment." 

He said the original law gave local people a chance to voice their opinions before any project.

"A private company, under the new draft, can put up a structure without any prior assessment. The law also insists on doing the assessment after construction. This leads to colossal damage to the environment and is counter-productive," the priest said.

"What is the use of such assessment after the damage is done?"

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress party, criticized the draft law, terming it a "disaster." He wanted people to raise their voices against it.

The draft law "seeks to silence the voice of communities who will be directly impacted by the environmental degradation it unleashes. I urge every Indian to rise up and protest against it," he tweeted on Aug. 9.

The Congress leader has also called for the draft law's withdrawal, saying it will lead to further environmental destruction and looting.

'Sinister plan'

Jesuit Father Tomy Nishant sees "a sinister plan" in the draft law at time when India is grappling with the coronavirus outbreak.

"It looks like a sinister plan to get it passed as people are preoccupied with greater concerns than this," said the priest based in Bihar state.

"Why this hurry and stealth, and who is going to benefit from this? It is absolutely clear the changes will make the rich richer and the poor poorer. In any aspect of environmental degradation, the poor are always the worst sufferers," Father Nishant told UCA News on Aug. 12.

Experts show that the EIA rules were designed as an essential step to assess the impacts of land use change, water extraction, tree felling, pollution, waste and effluent management for industrial and infrastructure projects.

"Any change in this law has a direct bearing on the living and working conditions of people and the ecology," the priest noted.

Federal Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar brushed aside the criticisms, saying that the draft is not final. He said the government has sought feedback from the public and would consider people's suggestions before finalizing the draft.

An official said the Environment Ministry had received 1.7 million comments from the public. "We have been overwhelmed with the number of comments," a senior ministry official told Hindustan Times daily on Aug. 10.

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