Last week, India’s environment minister got the police to block a website that was spamming his inbox with appeals not to dilute crucial environmental protections. The website’s name features the word “future” – for a reason. It is part of a global youth movement that wants political leaders to stop taking short-sighted decisions that lead to long-term ecological devastation that young people and unborn generations inherit.
The Modi government might want to block the future, but the future is here.
India, like the rest of the world, is currently battling the worst pandemic in a century that experts believe is closely connected to an environmental crisis. As natural habitats shrink and animals are hunted for trade, infectious diseases are leaping over into human populations at a faster clip. Long-buried pathogens are threatening to surface as global warming thaws permafrost in the Northern hemisphere and melts Himalayan glaciers.
Against this ominous backdrop, the Modi government is walking back on environmental protection. It is introducing a new Environmental Impact Assessment law which makes it mandatory for industrial projects to be evaluated for their ecological impact before they are greenlighted. If the draft law is passed, projects would be able to come up even before they have environmental clearances, undermining a legal regime built over three decades.
The Modi government had, in fact, already pushed through a notification to this effect in 2017, using it to grant ex post facto clearances to several projects which were in violation of the law. By rewriting the law, it wants to make this the standard practice.
Strikingly, in April this year, the Supreme Court had expressed its disapproval of such ex post facto clearances. It said they were “detrimental to the environment and could lead to irreparable degradation”. The order cited a previous judgement which said the environment must be managed through policies “consistent with principles of sustainable development and intergenerational equity” – that is, by recognising that future generations have an equal right to a clean environment. Yet, in these and several other cases, despite its rhetoric, the court has stopped short of enforcing the law strictly, allowing the violating industries to get away with monetary fines.
Even though the judiciary has often failed to uphold it, and its actual workings on the ground have been imperfect, the current Environment Impact Assessment law is a powerful instrument. The only instrument that many local communities have to hold the government and corporations to account, as industrial pollution seeps into their land, rivers and even the air they breathe.
The draft EIA law will enable the government to put many projects outside the ambit of environment review – by simply labelling them ‘strategic’. For the projects that will be assessed, the draft law reduces the window of opportunity for local communities to express their views about them. This would tilt the balance of power further on the side of industry in what is already an asymmetric field.
These are far-reaching changes. But the Modi government doesn’t seem to believe Indians must have a say in them. The environment ministry is pushing through the draft EIA law without adequate public consultation. It was published in March, a day before the coronavirus-lockdown paralysed the country. The original window for public comments was just 60 days. This was extended till August 11 only after the Delhi High Court intervened.
As the deadline approaches, a campaign on social media has picked up pace, alerting young urban Indians to the dangers of diluting the environmental law. But most Indians remain in the dark about it, even those battling the aftermath of a toxic gas leak in Visakhapatnam and an oil well blowout in Baghjan, projects where ironically the environmental clearance process wasn’t scrupulously followed.
Two high courts have asked the government to publish the draft law in 22 languages to ensure citizens across the country can read and engage with it. But the government has disregarded the court orders. It has simultaneously shut down three websites running an advocacy campaign against the draft law.
Shutting down public debate will not make the concerns go away. Young Indians contributed to the rise and re-election of the Modi government. It must heed their concerns.