Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar overruled the recommendations of senior officials from his ministry to extend the time frame for public feedback on the Narendra Modi government’s Environment Impact Assessment Act, The Wire reported on Friday, citing documents accessed under the Right to Information Act.
Javadekar fixed the deadline to seek public comments and objections to the proposal for June 30, instead of August 10. The new updates, which seeks to overhaul the existing EIA 2006, prescribe the procedure for industries to assess the ecological and environmental impact of their proposed activity and the mechanism whereby these would be assessed by expert committees appointed by the environment ministry.
The new notification, officially available online on March 23, gave a 60-day period for public consultation. The time frame for comments was extended to June 30 due to the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, according to a press release from the environment ministry.
Javadekar overruled officials from the level of joint secretary to the environment secretary after the ministry received over 5,000 suggestions, mostly negative, according to HuffPost India. The minister gave the public 40 less days to respond without assigning any specific reason for his decision.
Joint Secretary in the Environment Ministry Geeta Menon on April 23 suggested that the time period for public representations be extended. “Numerous representations have been received,” Menon wrote. “Since the EIA notification and any change thereto is of great significance to the management of environment in the country as a whole and to the matters of access and utilisation of natural resources, there is some merit in the request to reconsider the time limit of 60 days that has been provided at present in view of the corona pandemic.”
Over the next week, the matter was discussed with senior officers, including Former Secretary of the ministry CK Mishra, Additional Secretary Ravi Agrawal, and scientists Dr Sharath Kumar Pallerla and Dr JD Marcus Knight.
“In response to the draft EIA notification put up for public consultation, a large number of responses requesting for the notification to be withdrawn/kept on hold/ extend the time frame for submission of feedback, etc., have been received,” Menon wrote on May 4. “Accordingly, as directed, a draft communicating extension of time for feedback by a further period of 60 days from the date of publication in the Gazette i.e 11th April 2020 till 10th August 2020 is placed alongside for approval.”
Both Mishra and Agarwal also mooted extending the date for public feedback until August. Additionally, Pallerla prepared a note summarising the critical comments received by them. “Now you propose to make regressive changes to the EIA notification at a time when we simply cannot respond to your call for public comments,” one of the comments read, according to HuffPost India. “Is this democratic? Is this fair? Is this even humane to make us more anxious about our environmental futures when we are struggling to cope with this coronavirus, this lockdown and the suffering of millions of our people?”
However on May 5, when the file reached Javadekar he dismissed the proposed extension of time limit and set it as June 30. Two days later, on May 7, a press information note was released. “The ministry is in receipt of several representations for extending the notice period expressing concern that the draft EIA Notification 2020 was published during the lockdown imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” it said. “Therefore, the ministry after due consideration, deems it fit to extend the notice period up to 30th June, 2020.”
The RTI documents were obtained by environmentalist Vikram Tongad, who said he will approach the Delhi High Court if the Centre does not extend the time period. “This is an attempt to take advantage of people’s helplessness,” he said. “During the lockdown, when the postal service was not working and people were confined to their homes, the union government brought in the EIA notification hastily. Now people are not being given an opportunity to give their views on it, considering it is going to impact the entire country.”
Javadekar is yet to respond on why he did not extend the date.