mid-day turns 41: The protest of the year that you did not know about

Updated: Jul 13, 2020, 08:50 IST | Gaurav Sarkar | Mumbai

Memes, tweets and videos boosted #WithdrawEIA2020, which questions the government's proposal to remove public consultation from the environment clearances process, to a level mainstream media never could

Indigenous residents of Marshi Pada, Aarey Colony, on their way home after collecting wood. Pic/Ashish Rane
Indigenous residents of Marshi Pada, Aarey Colony, on their way home after collecting wood. Pic/Ashish Rane

A massive public opposition exercise against Environment Impact Assessment Act (EIA) notification 2020

While the pandemic lockdown has quelled all dissent in the past three months, one protest has only gathered steam. Environmental aActivists, lawyers and common citizens across the country are raising their voice against the central government's controversial draft Environment Impact Assessment Act (EIA) Notification 2020.

Aimed at making the EIA process "more transparent and expedient," the draft EIA 2020 notification, first published on April 11, 2020, seeks to remove public consultation entirely in specific developmental projects, reduce the time for public consultation from 45 days to 40 when it comes to specific projects, and finally, allow post-facto approval of these projects. Given the dangers that this poses to communities likely to be displaced by industrial projects, several environment protection groups like Let India Breathe, Greenpeace India, Aarey Conservation Group, Adivasi Lives Matter came together three months ago to raise public awareness and demand the EIA draft's immediate withdrawal. But it's the little known informal groups rallying around the big guns that make this a unique digital protest comprising Twitter storms, artwork on social media , as well as celebrity engagement. The result—lakhs from every corner of the country have sent in their written objections to the Modi government.

One of the many memes put out by the protesting collective against EIA 2020; (right) Shashi Sonawane, Bhumi Putra Bachao Andolan, in a video grab from Voices of India where people across India discuss why they want EIA 2020 withdrawn
One of the many memes put out by the protesting collective against EIA 2020; (right) Shashi Sonawane, Bhumi Putra Bachao Andolan, in a video grab from Voices of India where people across India discuss why they want EIA 2020 withdrawn

On June 30, a Delhi High Court bench comprising Chief Justice DN Patel and Justice Prateek Jalan, while hearing a petition by environmental conservationist Vikrant Tongad seeking an extension of the period for receiving public opinion on the draft notification due to the COVID-19 pandemic, granted an extension till August 11, 2020. The earlier deadline was June 30, 2020. During the hearing, the Bench also asked Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Mahinder Acharya, who was appearing for the Centre, why the notification was published only in two languages (English and Hindi) and whether the Centre was in a position to publish it in other languages. The bench also asked "what is the urgency" in finalising the EIA Notification 2020.

Speaking with mid-day, Yash Marwah, co-initiator at Let India Breathe, one of the many organisations helming the #WithdrawEIA2020 movement, said, "When we realised that the draft was not being read by enough people, we along with the Aarey Conservation Group, Himdhara, Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, MUSE, National Alliance of People's Movements, People's Union of Civil Liberties, Youth For Swaraj, etc. decided to start an awareness campaign via two lakh emails, digital posters and memes. This was followed by a series called Voices of India which featured people from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, etc, speaking about why they want the Draft EIA Notification to be withdrawn."

Nandkumar Pawar, Radhika Jhaveri and Zaman Ali
Nandkumar Pawar, Radhika Jhaveri and Zaman Ali

Mumbai-based environmental lawyer Zaman Ali says although the main objective of an EIA notification is to regulate construction activities in India by assessing the potential impact of a particular project on the environment, the draft EIA 2020 seeks to not only severely dilute many provisions of EIA 2006 but also introduce provisions that condone major illegalities and environmental wrongs that the project proponents have undertaken or propose to undertake—thereby defeating the very purpose of conducting an EIA. "People are voicing their opposition to the draft because of its very nature of condoning all present and future environmental wrongs by merely paying some remediation costs, exempting a number of highly polluting industries from the public consultation process as well as exemption from releasing documents pertaining to 'projects of strategic importance'."

Countering the government's claim of the EIA process becoming "more transparent," Ali said it does exactly the opposite. "Removing public hearings is an absolute derogation of basic environmental principles."

Anurag Karekar and Yash Marwah
Anurag Karekar and Yash Marwah

According to environmental activist Radhika Jhaveri, a member of the Aarey Conservation Group, EIA 2020 will affect a wide spectrum of communities ranging from forest dwellers and tribals to fisherfolk as well as coastal communities. "The protest has snowballed into a full-fledged national movement due to awareness. EIA 2020 seeks to legitimise aspects that are illegal in environmental jurisprudence. One example is that it seeks to provide post facto clearances to industrial projects. This means that industries that have defaulted in environmental regulatory norms stand to receive environmental clearances.

Anurag Karekar, founding member, trustee, and project director of Chinchpokli-based NaturalisT Foundation, said the EIA Draft severely weakens the impact and power of EIA as a preventive measure to environmental degradation. "India realised the importance of EIA after tragic accidents like the Bhopal Gas Tragedy… but its laws are vague, the guidelines are ill defined and the implementation machinery is not very strong. Amendments to the 2006 notification are well overdue but the MoE has made it weaker instead. They have brought in guidelines that favour industrialists who do not care about the people. If India wants to stand tall in the world as a developed nation, then this notification is definitely a setback."

Speaking of the #WithdrawEIA2020 movement, he says, "It is evident in recent times that the internet and social media algorithm, once understood, can be used to pass on any message whether good or bad. Awareness of and discussion on EIA 2020 reached a national stage against all odds and without coverage by any major TV news media outlet. Artists, illustrators, activists and many organisations made a unified stand; everyone concerned sent an objection email, shared awareness videos and posts on all their social media handles and requested friends and family to help."

Lastly, the MoE's decision to open the roads for public opinion—amid a pandemic—for a notification as important as EIA 2020, has raised eyebrows. Avinash Chanchal, climate campaigner with Greenpeace India, says, "It is unfortunate that MoEFCC is seeking feedback and suggestions on EIA 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 infection outbreak. The government, community, and civil society organisations are dealing with this public health crisis, making it very difficult to participate in a critical process. Expecting them to register their response to this draft notification at such a time might defeat the very purpose of the exercise."

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