Environment minister Prakash Javadekar overruled senior officers and curtailed the extension of time that was proposed to seek public comments and objections on the contentious draft of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, ministry documents show.
The ministry has received over 5,000 suggestions, objections and representations on the draft notification. A majority of them said that in light of the lockdown, the ministry ought to have put the notification on hold and objections were also raised on the limited time period allowed to send views.
The draft notification, made public on March 23, provided a period of 60 days to send in comments and objections. This period was extended till June 30 through a notification on May 7. Javadekar ordered this curtailed window of time over a view of senior officers in the ministry that comments and objections should be allowed till August 10. The minister did not offer any special remarks or explanations for his view, as per the file notings of the ministry.
The ministry’s official file notings on the issue were accessed under the Right to Information Act 2005, by environmental activist Vikrant Tongad. News18.com has seen the documents.
The draft EIA notification, 2020 seeks to overhaul the existing 2006 EIA notification. The EIA notification is one of bedrocks of environmental regulation in the country that drives scrutiny of infrastructure and developmental projects as part of the process of project clearances. The 2020 draft notification has been criticized heavily across the country for allowing only 60 days for public comments and the criticism was echoed even by former environment minister Jairam Ramesh.
Among the key criticisms against the draft notification include proposed reduction in period for public consultation of industrial projects, institutionalizing post-facto clearances for cases involving violations of green laws, weakening of compliance mechanisms and provision of relaxations for project expansions.
Discussion within ministry on extension of time for public comments
The ministry’s file notings show that discussions had begun on April 22 regarding the representations sent against the draft EIA notification, 2020. Junior and mid-levels scientists in the ministry brought the matter to the attention of the their superior officers, beginning with the joint secretary.
In a note dated April 20, Sharath Kumar Pallerla, a scientist in the environment impact assessment division of the ministry wrote that the ministry had received 1190 mails out of which 46 were suggestions and 1144 were mails requesting the ministry to defer the notification in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. The representations sought withdrawal of the draft notification, terming it as ‘regressive’.
Then on April 23, joint secretary Geeta Menon noted that that numerous representations (over 4,000) were received by her office. She said that 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 matters of access and utilization 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.
Menon added, “Accordingly, it is suggested that we may extend the time frame to a total of 180 days from the time of issue i.e. 23 March, 2020 (sic).” Over the next week, the matter was discussed with senior officers, including now former and now retired secretary of the ministry CK Mishra and additional secretary Ravi Agrawal.
Mishra instructed that the notice period for the draft EIA notification 2020 may be extended for a further period of 60 days, a junior scientist noted. The scientist then added a fresh draft in the noting which said that the notice period could be extended up to August 10. However, on May 5, at the end of the file noting, environment minister Javadekar signed off only with the remark ’30 June 2020’, without any other explanation. Two days later, the ministry had extended the time window till June 30, as ordered by the minister.
News18.com contacted Geeta Menon for a comment who refused.
Another officer, when contacted, said on the condition of anonymity, “The entire draft notification is available for analysis and the draft it is not a totally new notification since the 2006 notification is the base document. The idea is to get their inputs and comments for the ministry to take a view on it, 90 days are almost over. We have got comments and responses. We will continue to take up comments and objections till the notification is finalized. But there has to be a reasonable cut-off date.”
Tongad, who obtained the documents under RTI, said, "How will people be able to give appropriate comments/suggestions in this epidemic if meetings or public discussions (in physical) are not possible? The stand of the minister shows that he is in a hurry in this matter. After all, why is he rushing his anti-environment draft?"