‘EIA draft undermines very existence of forests’
The immediate economy will not matter once devastation strikes our land, says Dr Meher Abadian, a Veterinarian currently practicing in Mumbai, and appeals the government to listen to the scientists, slowly transition off coal and fossil fuels to clean renewable sources, protect ecosystems on land and in water, and conserve habitats of endangered species and, most importantly, we definitely do not need a diluted EIA 2020 draft that makes it easier for industries to profit at the cost of the common man’s future & the next generation’s future...
Q: What made you support movements like 'Let India Breathe'?
I have been practising for eight years now and I honestly love my job. I joined this profession because of my love for animals and I didn’t see myself doing anything else except to save all the animals in the world! For the longest time I have been working within the clinic walls, working with NGOS in mass sterilisation drives and performing emergency surgeries in the middle of the night, believing I was doing everything I could, till the bubble popped. It hit me, and it hit me hard when I came across the videos of deforestation, plastic pollution, climate change, and just the fact that yes I’m saving animal lives in the clinic, but there is this bigger issue that each and everyone is ignoring around us, something that will push animals into extinction, predicted by 2050— something that is happening in my lifetime, and I was not doing anything about it? The most common phrase I hear now is: “Meher, what can we do about it?” Ever since then I have been actively involved in trying to raise awareness on climate change, its causes and trying to understand the deep rooted issues behind why this is really happening, helping out in the climate change movements and other awareness campaigns, supporting movements like ‘Fridays For Future’ and ‘Extinction Rebellions’ in whatever way I can. ‘Let India Breathe’ is another citizens movement, doing great work, trying to raise awareness on injustice to indigenous communities, deforestation, news related to environment and environmental laws. We talk about real issues and I have found my comfortable space here, and through this platform we try to shed some light on the major issues around us, trying to raise the bar of conversation about the environment, things that people would tend to ignore.
Q: What is EIA 2020 draft and why is there such a wide-scale public dissent over it? What are the major points that are not going down well with the environment conscious?
The EIA, ‘Environment Impact Assessment’, is the assessment of the environmental consequences, by a panel of experts, conducting a step by step assessment of an industrial or development project, to measure its impact on the environment. It is a standardised process used worldwide which helps create stringent laws to protect the environment. The panel of experts was put together to assess the impact on the environment and accordingly gives environmental clearance for the particular project, allowing development to go hand in hand with protecting the environment. This panel also has the power to mitigate any untoward impact on our environment caused by a project. In addition, it considers inter-related socio-economic, cultural and human-health impacts, be it beneficial or adverse. In 1994 India had its first Environment Impact Assessment draft made which subsequently underwent amendments in 2004 and now in 2020. While in 2004 there were only a couple of amendments, mostly in favour of the environment, the 2020 EIA draft had the maximum amendments.
The 2020 draft unabashedly and completely favours industrial growth and despite the fact that protection of our forests, coastlines, wildlife, marine life is important, it does not take into account the rightful owners of the land, the indigenous people (adivasis), thereby invoking wide-scale public dissent, and rightfully so. We are currently going through a lockdown situation due to a pandemic that has been linked to deforestation, increasing human and wildlife interaction, allowing viruses to mutate, jumping hosts and causing greater damage to the more susceptible species i.e. humans. It is indisputably the ideal time to take a step back to check the direction of our lives and to change our perspective of ‘Success’ and “development”. As a first step we need to reduce our carbon emissions to halt the heating up of our planet. And how do we do that, you ask. It is as simple as slowly getting off fossil fuels, and protecting our forests. But is it that simple? Especially when we see how this unpretentious plan is intricately woven with complicated factors like Economy, GDP, Development and Growth? But we will get into that later. Climate Change, air pollution, water crises, the pandemic, all serious issues we are facing right now, and all linked to deforestation and damaging of ecosystems. In 2018 India was ranked 177 out of 180 in the Environmental Performance Index, which most certainly besides being a cause for concern, it indicates our existing inclination towards protecting our environment.
With the new amendments made in the EIA 2020 draft, illegal industries that do not have environment clearances can continue to damage the environment and are allowed to get away by paying a meagre fine. The practice of half yearly reports has been scrapped and industries will now be allowed to give annual reports, an amendment blatantly in their favour. What we need to understand is that allowances of this kind given to industries allow them to damage the environment, breaking the laws, and ultimately after a year when the inspection is being made, the penalty they face will be a meagre fine, but once the ecosystems are destroyed, there is no bringing that back. The industry outrageously continues with its non-compliance of environmental laws, unafraid of suspension or withdrawal of EC as just a fine is paid with no thought of the damage to the ecology and only for personal gain. The 2020 draft will increase the EC for mining projects from the earlier 30 years to 50 years and river valley projects from 10 to 15 years. An insensitive amendment as this leads to irreversible environmental damage, affecting the lives of the people living and working around the areas. It also allows for Ex post facto clearances, which was deemed illegal by the Supreme Court, but now will be made legal. It callously allows the industries to go ahead with their project with impunity, without getting clearance on the impact it has on the environment, the industries can violate the EIA norms first and then seek the clearance later. Another alarming factor is that industries with high toxic/negative environmental impact can now be started without public consultation and EAC approval. The list includes mining, oil exploration, river valley projects, thermal power, production of chemicals and acids, cement plants, and many more.
But if you ask me the real cause of concern here is the slow and steady weaning away of the Public Consultation process. It lays bare the fact that they are stripping away the rights of the people living in the areas by not allowing them to fight these projects and by reducing the time for them to give a fitting rebuttal to the EIA. The reduction of the time period of the public hearing process itself makes it difficult for the people who are living in the rural and tribal areas and are directly impacted by these projects to raise their voices. It will negate any public hearing for linear projects expansion in forests, revenue and private lands, for expansion of width of national highways, especially in eco sensitive zones and projects concerning national defence and security. All offshore drilling, trawling, deep sea mining and offshore wind energy have been exempted from Public Consultation beyond 12 nautical miles. Elevated roads and flyovers are now allowed without Public Consultation inside National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. Another appalling dilution is the distance from the boundaries of protected areas, eco sensitive areas, borders and critically polluted areas have been reduced, and this means that industries will be permitted in eco-sensitive zones, leading to severe damage to ecology. One more major factor of concern in the new draft is that the baseline data for the ecology will be collected for one season only. What does this mean? In India we have multiple seasons and as the seasons change, the migratory birds change, landscapes change, hosting a variety of flora and fauna which needs to be mentioned in the EIA report, but the draft suggests that the baseline data will be collected for only one season other than monsoon, with the exception of river valley projects. How can we consider only one season, when the lifecycle of most of our flora and fauna changes with the change of season? We need to and must take into consideration all seasons in totality and the movement of each individual species. This anthropocentric view of us human beings needs to be challenged. We need to realise we need nature, nature does not need us. We are in fact part of the ecosystem, we destroy nature, and we are destroying our own habitat!
In conclusion, this new EIA draft undermines the very existence of people and forests, and their dependence on it. It is obvious that a weak EIA report will lead to great ecological and economic damage. In the last few months itself we have seen the Vishakhapatnam LG polymer gas leakage and the gas blowout and inextinguishable fires in the oil well in Assam, both perfect examples of the imminent dangers of having weak EIA laws.
Q: At a time when environment & Nature play a very important role in our very survival, do you think that the government is more concerned with development and getting back on track post-COVID-19 lockdown?
Yes, definitely, and that is a major cause of concern. There was a phase where everyone kept saying the planet is healing itself because of decreased human activity, but unfortunately that hasn’t lasted long enough because clearly we weren't tackling the root causes. The EIA being prepared to give industries permission without giving heed to environmental damage, in order to make up for perceived economic losses/contraction, and to “save” our economy. Even seeing how the labour laws have been watered down, all in anticipation for when things open up, to ramp up production. The auctioning of coal, in the time of the climate crises, especially in eco-sensitive zones and ‘No-Go’ zones is clearly a questionable step taken in the context of “Atmanirbhar”. Displacing adivasis and exploiting them is not making them self reliant, rather at their expense the aim seems to be to rampantly increase urbanisation without consulting or taking in the local voices of those lands. But it’s clearly unfathomable to see how the government is working on such short term goals, when we clearly know how detrimental it is going to be in the long run.
Q: Why should hilly states and North-East be given higher protection environment-wise? What would be the consequences of their (natural resource) exploitation (especially rampant mining)?
The rich biodiverse region of North-East India is a lush mosaic of ecological landscapes which is in dire need of intensive attention towards conservation. The region is rich in oil, coal, limestone, uranium, and these are resources that have great value in our developing country. It is under tremendous pressure to unleash its resources to pave the way for development. Extraction of these resources from the ground, if not done with correct measures can lead to contamination of rivers and water bodies, leading to damage to the eco systems. Contaminated water sources can cause severe Gastric disorders and other illnesses in humans, and also death of several life forms in these habitats. Unrestricted and unregulated mining can lead to deforestation and loss of habitats, leading our animals species closer to extinction. Deforestation also leads to soil erosion, making the regions more prone to landslides, and especially in this Pandemonium of climate crises that we are facing, with the area being susceptible to the heavy rainfalls, and cloud bursts, these disasters are going to be the new normal. Unregulated extraction, like what has been happening in the illegal rat hole mining in Meghalaya can lead to collapsing of the mines taking lives of the miners and no price tag can be put on that. The NGT had banned unscientific and ecologically unsafe rat-hole mining of coal in Meghalaya; but clearly banning such mines are not solving the problem, as the coal mafia continues Illegal mining, with no precautionary measures to ensure the safety of the miners. Imagine adding to this already hellish condition, the passing of the New EIA draft, where industries are going to be given Post Facto Clearances, and no public consent, I can’t even imagine what to expect. But, a ray of hope for us right now are the communities that are living there- the indigenous people, who are fighting for their land, for their right to live on what is theirs. We have forgotten our true connection with nature, something the indigenous people still have, we need to unlearn this concept of development, and relearn these sacred connections from them.
Q: In urban areas, the new mixed economy feature wherein industries and residents can be developed together in an area, compromising the human health? Is it not causing greater pollutions of air, water, soil?
I personally feel it's time for us to rethink our concepts of economy, industries, and development. The way we are living life right now is damaging our environment. We are using up resources, faster than nature can regenerate it. We have only one planet, and it is a finite source of resources, but our economy demands for infinite growth. We need to accept this is a huge problem and realise what mess we have gotten ourselves into. Our lifestyles, and incessant want of things needs to stop. We need to develop a more holistic system, that doesn’t only focus on economic growth, but also the overall well being of human life. Instead of just relinquishing our responsibility to the governments and Corporations fully, we need to participate as a community. We need to focus on going local, locally sourced food, textiles, arts, empowering local communities, because if the local communities are rich, our economy is rich. Then this idea of pollution from industries itself doesn’t arise. Air, water and soil pollution only arises when people do not question, allowing industries to do what they want to, and when there is absolutely no opposition, the industries try to find their way around the rules. It is time the people of India wake up and realise how we are ourselves allowing the industries to take advantage of this.
Q: Do you think one major hindrance in environmental protection is lack of data? Why do governments never bother with gathering accurate, extensive and regular data on green cover, flora-fauna, changes in regional topography and changing land use etc?
The hindrance to good environment protection includes the aspect of the lack of enough data but only secondary to what should be our first focus - the intention behind environmental protection itself. The government hasn’t done enough to repair the largely broken relationship with our ecology rather incessantly aggravates it. This can be measured not just by data but actually capturing stories of the local indigenous people who have spent their lives protecting the forests and understanding from them on how we cultivate and save our ecosystems, a thorough focus on conserving the ecology has never been a part of the larger discourse of our progress. Conservation of Ecology has always been an afterthought, mostly seen as an avenue to take forward the capitalistic development. The data points that potentially help protect our environment, thus, by definition have not been the priority of govts because that would in a way subvert the decisions of the authorities to set up more industries and encroach further inwards. So the question is less about more data, but more about more systemic understanding that enables co-operation and evolution alongside ecology in a mutually thriving way.
Q: What is your appeal to the government? How must India tred to avoid much-uglier natural calamities in future?
As you must have noticed from my earlier answers, the issues we are facing right now are more deep rooted than just saving forests. Where this is a must, we have to protect our green cover, this needs to be a priority, because it is a carbon sink, and it will be an answer to solving our water crises. We definitely do not need a diluted EIA 2020 draft that makes it easier for industries to profit at the cost of the common man’s future, the next generation’s future. But again this is a short term goal and environmentalists will forever be fighting with industrialists till we do not change the intricate fabrics of our systems and the economy model. Climate change is real, and we need to make sure all our resources and innovations are directed towards resolving this, looking at the long term goals rather than the immediate short term ones. The immediate economy will not matter once devastation strikes our land. “Development” will play no role in floods and when people become climate refugees, and when states get into wars over water and food. This is a reality and is not a situation too far in the future. This pandemic has shown us that the air will clear, the water will be fit for consumption and nature will heal if we humans stop interfering with the natural processes. My appeal to the government would be to listen to the scientists, slowly transition off coal and fossil fuels to clean renewable sources (and no, hydel projects are not considered clean renewables) and initiate decentralisation. Protect our ecosystems on land and in water, and conserve habitats of endangered species like lions, tigers, lion tailed macaques, elephants; these are only a few I have mentioned, it’s a shame that most of our species are endangered and instead of protecting them, we are narrowing wildlife corridors and destroying their habitats. Protect the indigenous people and learn their ways, empower them, instead of exploiting them for they might just be our only hope. Pay more attention to education, rather than other frivolous issues, making climate education a must. Strengthen the health care facilities, this pandemic has clearly shown us how unprepared we are especially when we know that this is only going to be the beginning of so many more unknowns. And the most important would be disaster management, declare a Climate Emergency and prepare our country against this, because these disasters are going to increase in frequency and intensity. As a Doctor I always tell patients ‘Prevention is better than Cure’!