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The latest notification by the NDA Government on Environment lmpact Assessment (EIA) of projects requiring environment clearance is a death warrant for the environment. It will undo all that environmentalists have been fighting for all these years. In fact, the EIA is a license to exploit our natural resources. Meghalaya is blessed with coal, limestone, uranium etc. These need to be used judiciously; not exploited. So far the people of Meghalaya have been able to resist mining of uranium, because the EIA process has always been truncated by pressure groups. Hence uranium mining in Meghalaya has remained at the experimental stage only, although there are allegations of covert uranium mining operations carried on by the Atomic Minerals Division, Government of India.
This time the NDA Government has tried to bypass these ‘impediments’ by allowing post facto EIA –meaning thereby that the environmental impacts of any project would be assessed after the project has started. In other words, the Centre will first grant mining rights or rights to create power projects, roads and railway projects and then assess the damage to the environment. This is nothing short of locking the stables after the horses have bolted. It is a ploy to overcome the strict norms of assessing the possible devastation to the environment on account of mining and other projects which earlier governments had strictly adhered to and because of which quite a few power projects and mining concessions in states of the North East are hanging fire. The new EIA proposal by the NDA Government is set to let loose a dangerous precedent of gagging people’s voices which were earlier heard in public hearings by the Government appointed EIA agencies.
So why should Meghalaya be wary of the latest EIA proposed by the NDA Government. And what is the EIA in the first place? It is a vetting process before any project with the potential to hurt the environment (mining, quarrying, sand banking cutting down of forests, diverting rivers, among others) is given clearance to by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MOEFCC). The EIA is a meticulous study by environment experts about the effects of a proposed industrial/infrastructural project on the environment. It puts the brakes on a proposed activity/project from being approved without proper oversight or taking adverse consequences into account. Naturally India’s new EIA draft has been widely criticized for the drastic change in rules. Experts aver that most of the provisions in the new draft of EIA are a regressive departure from the earlier version.
An EIA is a crucial report that objectively critiques the unintended impacts that a proposed project will have on the ecology of the site with robust action plans on mitigating the negative impacts with clear and practical points on enhancing the positive aspects. It is a critical step that mining and other companies ought to follow for getting governmental clearance before proceeding with a project. The intent of the EIA is that it be conducted with fairness, equity and transparency, involving stakeholders that should include in the main, the affected people who more often than not are from the most marginalised sections of society. It is this rigorous step that can make projects more sustainable.
The proposed draft EIA on the contrary, allows for post facto approvals, thereby doing away with the exercise of making diligent assessments and seeking clearances. It shrinks public participation in the process by reducing the notice period for hearings, if not doing away with them altogether in many categories of projects. To be more precise the intent is to make impact assessment itself redundant in as many projects as possible. What is even more dangerous for areas like North East India that used to have about 60% of the forest cover of the country is that all these forests will be denuded with grim consequences because the new EIA says projects are allowed to secure land for long durations without being accountable for any construction on those lands. This will increase mercenary land grabbing that is already happening in areas held by cement companies and coal mining agencies. Further, the EIA empowers the Centre to appoint State authorities to oversee this process, thereby diminishing the voices of real stakeholders, the indigenous people.
This is not to say that the earlier EIAs took into account peoples’ views and that those views were even incorporated. Mining in the hill state of Meghalaya has happened within forest areas and that was done even by redefining forests. That act was executed by the State Forest Department in 2015. Earlier the District Councils had defined an area with 25 mature trees as a forest. In 2015 just after granting mining leases to cement companies, the Meghalaya Government diluted the definition of “forest”. In December, 2015 the Forest Regulation Act of 1973 was amended by adding the phrase a “compact and continuous tract of minimum four hectares” will now be considered as forest in the state. The new definition specifies that an area should have more than 250 naturally growing trees with a girth size of 15 cm or more per hectare (ha) to be regarded as forest. In case of a bamboo dominant patch, more than 100 naturally growing clumps should be present per ha. In case of mixed vegetation, the number changes to 150 trees and over 40 bamboo clumps. Going by the above definition there would be no forest land in Meghalaya and indeed forest land has dwindled considerably. Even within reserved forests there are large scale encroachments.
The irony of it all is that In December 1996, the Supreme Court had passed a landmark judgment, reinterpreting the definition of forest under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. The apex court said that it would go by the dictionary meaning of forests. The definition not only includes forests mentioned in government records but “all areas that are forests as per the dictionary meaning of the term irrespective of the nature of ownership and classification”. According to Oxford English Dictionary a forest is “a large area covered chiefly with trees and undergrowth”. There is no demarcation in terms of area or number of trees in the dictionary meaning. Today climate change has affected Meghalaya as much as it has other states in this country. This hilly state has had summer temperatures in the range of 27-30 degrees centigrade in the last few years. The highest temperature that Meghalaya used to have 20 years ago at the height of summer was never more than 24 degrees centigrade.
Scientists have been warning us of the present and imminent dangers of climate change but governments across the world including our own have preferred to look the other way. One of the reasons for the proliferation of rare infectious diseases is because the environment is fighting back against the propensity of humans to appropriate everything within their sight. They want to conquer all and indulge in profiteering at all costs. This is the mantra today. It is wrong to surmise that the lessons left behind by Covid in these last five months have taught us humans the much needed lesson in adversity and humility. Now, it is those in Government that are possessed by a rapacity not seen before. They want to sell out this earth and its resources as if they own this planet. This shameless action must be stopped in its tracks ought to be condemned by all humans in India and not just by environmentalists. Covid affects everyone, rich and poor alike but the poor suffer much more because they do not own the resources to fight back the Covid disease or the economic impacts of the sudden halt on livelihoods.
So far, the only group to have taken up this issue with some seriousness is the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU). They have submitted a memorandum to the State Government opposing the EIA. But can we leave it to the KSU alone to take up an issue that will affect us for generations to come? For once we need to come together and stand as one to oppose the EIA. We also need to build solidarities across the region. It’s now or never!