World Environment Day: New Bill Supports Construction Projects in Eco-Sensitive Areas

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From ports to hydropower projects, in places from Tamil Nadu to Uttarakhand, the new environmental law being drafted has come under heavy criticism from campaigners

Illayaraja, in his 40s, is a fisherman in the town of Pulicat, Tamil Nadu. Three generations of his family have lived off fishing for a living. But Illayaraja hopes for a different life for her two children. “I hope they find better jobs elsewhere and leave this coastal town,” he says. The fishing village has almost no families left, most having migrated to the cities in search of better livelihoods.

“The fishing becomes untenable here. Today we are surrounded by factories and power stations,” says Illayaraja, who had joined the protest against the proposed Adani-L&T Kattupalli port here. The controversial project is expected to erode the northern part of the coast at an alarming rate of 16 meters per year, and will impact bird life and marine diversity. The construction site is only 2.1 km from the Pulicat Wildlife Sanctuary, although the law prohibits ports within 10 km of a sanctuary. “We already have high tides due to the development of the area and we are limited by big boats and ships,” says Illayaraja.

The irony is that the Union government has listed Pulicat as one of Tamil Nadu’s 14 ‘priority wetlands’ and an ‘Important Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Area’.

urgent action

As you read this, a team from J. Sagar Associates in Bengaluru is working on the draft of a single new Environmental Management Act, which is ready to support this project and several others such as hydroelectric projects in the ‘Uttarakhand and Jammu’s multipurpose Ujh project. , all of which have the potential to destroy the environmentally sensitive areas in which they are found.

Protests at Dehradun railway station against energy projects in Pala Maneri and Bhaironghati in 2010.

Protests at Dehradun railway station against energy projects at Pala Maneri and Bhaironghati in 2010. | Photo credit: Virender Singh Negi

Amit Kapur, co-manager, J. Sagar Associates, is under “strict confidentiality” and cannot share details, but what we know so far is that this new framework law should replace three existing Acts – Air Act 1981, Water Act 1974 and Environment (Protection) Act 1986.

The roots of this new law can be traced back to the 2014 Subramanian Committee which was appointed by the Union Ministry of Environment to revise environmental laws.

Regarding Ecologically Sensitive Zone (ESZ) of Lake Pulicat, the State Forestry Department has submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change (MoEFCC) for a 0 km ESZ in 2019 The Expert Committee on the ESZ rejected the proposal. “If the new arrangements are notified, the Lake Pulicat region will be affected. The new provisions dilute environmental protection and open up areas for development and make it easier to do business,” says Pooja Kumar of the Coastal Resource Centre.

A March 15 Facebook post on the Chennai Climate Action Group page highlights how, for the second time in a month, Kattupalli Kuppam fishermen demanded the fulfillment of the promise of permanent jobs at Adani-L&T ports. “Irritated by the government’s refusal to enforce the pledge, even as the threat of losing their fishing livelihood [because] of Adani’s request for a no-fishing zone around the port of Kattupalli, some of the fishermen are blocking the entrance to the ports L&T and Adani Kattupalli, even though several boats have left to block the entrance to the port in seaside,’ it read.

MoEFCC’s appraisal of Kattupalli Port project to grant terms of reference for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Tamil Nadu government’s decision to reduce ESZ are following independent tracks, said Kumar. “It is suspected that the reduction of the ESZ will directly benefit the Kattupalli Port establishment process.”

Hard not to question

The company submitted the draft EIA report for a public hearing which has not yet taken place due to COVID-19, and the new date has not yet been announced.

It’s hard not to question the timing of yet another environmental law in the midst of a crippling pandemic. “The problem is when COVID-19 becomes an excuse to suppress the public consultation and discussion that is an essential part of parliamentary democracy. It’s ironic when the government sees the lack of public consultation as an act of public interest,” says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta.

Abandoned construction works at the Loharinag Pala hydropower project in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand.

Abandoned construction works at the Loharinag Pala hydropower project in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand. | Photo credit: Sandeep Saxena

Although the government has not directly stated that the Subramanian committee’s report will be implemented, in reality it has implemented many of its most problematic recommendations, Dutta says. The simplified procedure for felling trees under the Forest Conservation Act 1980; EIA exemption for building and construction projects; exemptions for the expansion of coal mines; and the lack of a public hearing are all part of the report of the Subramanian committee. “Environmental laws today are enacted without regard to the environment or the public, but with the interest of those who want to exploit the environment in mind. Emission standards for power plants, for example, were developed with the interest of the emitters in mind, not those who inhale the polluted air,” says Dutta.

Need to engage

India’s EIA process seems to ensure that a project is approved in the shortest possible time without baseline studies. In the case of Mopa Airport in Goa, after four years of litigation before the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court, the latter ordered the MoEFCC Expert Review Committee to review the project. Dutta says the reconsideration was done in one meeting held in one day and the committee again approved the project.

Drafting environmental laws has rarely been a transparent and participatory process, says Shibani Ghosh, an environmental lawyer and fellow at the Center for Policy Research, adding that this is true for the legislative process in India in general. “Calls for environmental regulatory reform in general and specific regulatory instruments (such as EIA notification) have been raised repeatedly over the years. Several studies and reports have been published by governmental and non-governmental actors. The courts have also commented and made recommendations,” she says.

“It is important that the government engages with all stakeholders in a meaningful way as soon as the proposal is on the drawing board. Adjusting a few provisions in response to public comments (if a public consultation is undertaken, that is) is simply not enough.

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