Implication of Draft EIA Notification, 2020 in Manipur

The introduction of the draft comes at a time when various energy projects, extractive industries, mining plans, agribusiness and large infrastructure projects are aggressively pursued in Manipur and in Northeast India under India’s Act East Policy.

The Draft Notification on Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), 2020 by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Government of India, which was released on March 12 sparked off a controversy among environmentalists and civil societies on the long-term implications of such draft that is perceived as continued dismantling of environmental regulations in India.

The introduction of the draft comes at a time when various energy projects, extractive industries, mining plans, agribusiness and large infrastructure projects are aggressively pursued in Manipur and in Northeast India under India’s Act East Policy.

Various mining companies are engaged in mining surveys and operate plans to extract minerals present in Manipur, primarily Chromite and Limestone in Ukhrul, Kamjong, Tengnoupal and Chandel districts.

The Geological Survey of India estimates around 20 million metric tonnes of limestone deposits in Hundung, Phungyar and Mailiang villages in Ukhrul district and at Toupokpi, Chakpikarong, Haikot etc in Tengnoupal and Chandel Districts.

Several MoUs for mining were among the 39 MoUs signed during the North East Business Summit held at Imphal, Manipur on November 21-22, 2017, for commencement of Chromium and Limestone mining in Manipur in addition to setting up of infrastructures to facilitate oil and gas exploration.

The companies involved in oil exploration in Manipur includes the Oil India Ltd (OIL), Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Jubilant Oil and Gas Private Ltd, the Tullow Oils, Asian Oilfields, Alphageo Company, involved in oil exploration and survey works in Manipur since 2010.

As many as 32 dams are proposed to be built over the rivers of Manipur. These projects require a rigorous and meticulous assessment of impacts on environment, people, livelihood, and even inter-generational survival of indigenous communities of Manipur.

The deregulation of policies and enactment of new policies stem from the free trade agreements that India signed with various developed countries of South East Asian nations, for ease of business.

The EIA notification is a crucial regulation through which the impacts of land use pattern, tree felling, pollution, waste, and effluent management for industrial and infrastructure projects can be studied, given India’s ambition to become an economic superpower. However, the introduction of draft EIA notification 2020 during Covid-19 lockdown, accord negligible space for environmentalists, civil societies and concern organizations to examine the details and for meaningful consultation on the draft and hence requires critical review.

The Draft EIA Notification 2020 moves towards further dilution of environmental regulations in India by weakening the EIA processes. The new draft makes ‘environmental clearances’ easier by placing large unsustainable projects, like large hydropower projects up to 25 MW under Category B2, which were earlier categorized as Category ‘A’ projects, thus removing them from mandatory environmental appraisal at the level of Government of India and exempts many unsustainable development projects etc. from the need of public consultations while seeking environmental clearances.

In the 2006 EIA notification, category ‘B’ project was treated as category ‘A’ project if the project fulfilled the ‘general conditions’, which meant if they were located (in whole or in part) within 10 km from the boundaries of protected areas, critically polluted areas, eco-sensitive zones, or inter-state and international boundaries.

But as per the new notification, ‘B1’ projects fulfilling the general condition will be appraised by the expert appraisal committee, but they will no more be treated as category ‘A’ projects. This explicit clarification does seem to imply that they will undergo less rigorous appraisal. Earlier, an approval or clearances from the expert panels – the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) and 10 Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC) – is necessary for projects to get green clearances from MoEFCC.

The draft EIA notification 2020 will simplify and dilute such requirements from different environment related ministries. Further, similar projects within national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, or ecologically sensitive areas will be subjected to public consultations only within that specific district, regardless of its ecological impacts to nearby areas. This undermined the longstanding demands of a cumulative impact assessment, viz. in cascade dams, infrastructure projects and extractive industries in river basins, which dotted the terrains of Manipur and across Northeast.

Another major concern is how environmentally unsustainable industries like extractive industries, mining projects and oil exploration, are accorded much flexibility in the Draft Notification.

The Draft will exempt “coal and non-coal mineral prospecting,” from impact assessment of ecological impact and damage apart from impacts on communities depending on such resources. The non-coal mineral prospecting will include oil and gas exploration and drilling, confirmed as one of the most environmentally devastating projects.

 The draft extended the duration of environmental clearance from the earlier 30 years to 50 years, considering the duration as part of the “construction phase.” This is alarming for Manipur and in North East as mining and oil exploration pursued in the region for long are testament of severe environmental impacts, such as the Baghjan oil spill in Assam since 27 May 2020.

The Draft also exempts all defence and “national security” projects, as well as any other projects involving “strategic considerations as determined by the government” from “environmental clearances”. This gives a virtual carte blanche to the government who could declare, for instance, oil exploration as “strategic projects” and thus evading environmental scrutiny.

The most challenging aspect of the Draft EIA Notification 2020 is the wide-ranging freedom given to project proponents to engage in violation of conditions under which they were granted environmental clearance. “Dealing with violation cases” is a new section in the draft notification, that overlooks all type of violation relating to forest clearance and other environmental violation by simply imposing fines, categorize the terms of violation in four ways -- Suo moto application of the project proponent; or reporting by any government authority; found during the appraisal by Appraisal Committee; or any violation found during the processing of application by regulatory authorities.

The draft condones violation of any environmental norms by simply imposing fines, graded depending upon whether the project proponent admits to such violations or exposed by government agency. The levy of fine of project proponents by declaring a ‘crime’ as a ‘non-crime’ legitimizes the violation.

The draft EIA 2020 undermines the orders of the National Green Tribunal that ruled against post-facto approvals by attempting to legitimize violations committed by huge industries, construction agencies and all those that are involved in development related activities. A project that starts without an Environment Clearance is a violation of the Environment Protection Act 1986. The proposal of MoEFCC in the new draft EIA notification to allow projects violating the law is against the ‘polluter pays principle’ and instead, propagates a “pollute and pay” principle by paying fine.

The draft attempts to uproot ‘public consultations and public hearings’, despite their flaws and limitations of such hearings. The draft notification provides for a reduction of the time up to 20 days for the public to submit their responses during a public hearing for any application seeking environmental clearance. It requires the public hearing process be completed within 40 days, compared to 45 days under the EIA 2006 notification. This will further weaken the public hearing process. Without adequate time, public hearing will lack transparency and credibility. The reduction of time would particularly pose a problem in those areas where information is not easily accessible.

The notification of 20 days’ time for consultation is inadequate for indigenous communities in remote areas, needing translation of project documents in local dialects and for consultations appropriate to indigenous peoples’ way of life and traditional institutions.

The EIA notification with processes to further dilute the public consultation process by shortening the time for consultation and exemption of certain key projects, such as fossil fuels and those determined as ‘national projects’, from impact assessment and environmental clearance processes, will infringe on indigenous peoples rights over their land and natural resources and for their consent.

Building of large dams, oil exploration and mining in Manipur have long caused controversy over environmental and social impacts, which affected communities highlighted in “environmental public hearings”. The regulatory dilution will further deny peoples’ right to assert concerns in public hearing on impacts of unsustainable projects.

The draft EIA 2020 will usher in catastrophic changes to indigenous peoples’ way of life by unleashing rights violation, eviction, and ecological destruction.

The government pursued “creating enabling environment” for corporate bodies to improve the “ease of doing business” in India by diluting all regulations that project proponents viewed as obstacles to investment and insatiable pursuit of profits.

The core concept of draft EIA 2020 is to pave the way for multinational corporations to legally exploit the land and resources of indigenous communities, such as in Manipur and in North East without environmental scrutiny and by removing all perceived hindrances for corporate bodies in their business, such as ‘environment clearance’ and ‘public hearing’.

This is alarming for Manipur where large dams, mining of Chromite and drilling of oil and gas has been pursued in biodiverse and ecologically sensitive areas. 

An urgent introspection of the long term implications of the Draft EIA notification, 2020 if approved on the environment and rights of indigenous peoples of Manipur is highly critical, given the plans for building large dams, mining, oil exploration, large infrastructure projects, agri-business under Act East Policy. On 11 August 2019, media reported that at least Thirty-Two (32) potential sites for Hydropower development has been identified in a “Potential Mapping” over Rivers in Manipur. The National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) already signed Memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Government of Manipur to construct the 1500 MW Tipaimukh dam on 28 April 2010. Additionally, NEEPCO signed MoU agreement with the Government of Manipur on 28th August 2014 for construction of 190 MW Pabram Dam, the 67 MW Khongnem Chakha Dam, 60 MW Irang Dam etc over the Barak and Irang Rivers and the 51 MW Tuivai Dam over Tuivai River. The total loss of trees and bamboo groves in both Mizoram and Manipur due to the submergence by Tipaimukh dam is estimated at over eight (8) million trees and over four (4) million bamboo groves. The Mapithel dam submerged more than 600 hectares of forest land. The pursuance of 32 dams will significantly disturb the fragile ecology and destroy the rich flora and fauna of Manipur, also falling in high seismic Zone V. 

The intense pursuance of extractive industries becomes an obvious reality after several mining companies began involved for survey work and oil exploration in Manipur in the last decade. Eight blocks of limestone over an area of 34.37 sq.km and ten blocks of chromite over an area of 38.96 sq.km have been notified for exploration and mining with nine private companies signing Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) on 22 November 2017 with the Government of Manipur (GOM). The GOM signed Seven MoUs for chromite exploration and mining with M/s Sarvesh Refractories Pvt. Ltd, Rourkela, M/s Rourkela Minerals Pvt. Ltd (RAMCO), Rourkela, M/s Kotak Resources, Mumbai, M/s Gulf Natural Resources, Gurgaon, M/s Visa Steel Ltd, Odisha, M/s Manipur Mines and Minerals Pvt. Ltd., M/s Balassore Alloys Ltd, Odisha etc in 2017. The project for mining at Singcha was approved in 2017 and 2018 even without receiving Environment and Forest clearance for the project. The mining company, RAMCO misinformed the absence of forest area in Singcha Gamnon in its pre-feasibility study for Chromite mining plan. Villagers of Hundung village confirm how the Cement production in Hundung Cement factory caused health impacts.

Multinational oil companies from India and beyond like Jubilant Energy, Tullow Oils and Oil India Limited has been pursuing oil exploration and drilling in Manipur with tacit support of the Government. The oil companies failed to conduct any impact assessment including for 2D and 3D seismic surveys on the land, people and environment of the proposed villages and sites of oil surveys and drilling operations in ecologically sensitive areas of Manipur. The initial EIA prepared for the public hearing by SENES consultancy group negated the existence of endemic species in Manipur.

Oil Exploration, mining, dam building etc are confirmed as one of most environmentally damaging projects and the exemption of such projects from EIA will violate indigenous peoples’ rights and destroy environment. Manipur indeed falls in two of the World’s Biodiversity Hotspot, the Eastern Himalayas Biodiversity Hotspot, and Indo-Burma Hotspot, that explains the rich biodiversity in Manipur. The oil spill in Baghjan in Assam continues since 27 May 2020 and unleashed massive environmental damage in Dibru Saikhowa National Park and displaced several thousands of communities in and around Baghjan area in relief camps during Covid-19 pandemic. The Oil India Limited, the company responsible for the oil spill has been unable to control the oil spill and the subsequent fire that caused massive social and environmental impact. The Assam Pollution Control Board (PCB, Assam) even directed the Oil India Limited to close its Baghjan Oil drilling site on 19 June 2020. The closure notice, sent by PCB, Assam to OIL, also cited several environmental transgressions by the oil company. Such oil spill in Baghjan that caused widespread social and environment impacts further necessitates a detailed environmental and social impact assessment and the involvement of affected communities with due recognition of their rights to draw up appropriate mitigation plan and measures.

Manipur is indeed identified as the zone of confluence of three major species streams namely the Malayo-Polynesian species, the Tibeto-Chinese species, and the Indian sub-continent species. No cumulative impact assessments have ever been conducted for all the mining plans in the four districts in Manipur. Exempting the oil and gas and mining companies and weakening of environment regulations for energy projects like large dams pursued in environmental fragile and ecologically sensitive areas from environment impact assessments under the draft EIA notification, 2002 in the pretext of facilitating corporate plunder and expropriation of Manipur’s land and natural resources will be disastrous for Manipur. Such destruction will be unfortunate, which the coming generations will never forgive the present generations for facilitating such destructions. 

The draft EIA notification provides environment clearance validity for 50 years for mining projects, against 30 years in the present notification, 15 years from river valley projects against 10 years. Such provision of extension without adequate safeguard and regulatory and accountability mechanisms even when companies are involved in environmental destruction and social impacts will only reinforce corporate unaccountability with support of the State. Manipur cannot afford an unsustainable economic growth of a country that destroy peoples’ lives, land, and nature. Another problem with the new notification is the extension of the time given for submitting a compliance report throughout the term of the project, as against earlier submission of report every six months. During this period, certain irreversible environmental, social or health consequences of the project could go unnoticed because of the extended reporting time. With these provisions, the draft EIA 2020 goes against the environment and the people while favouring the corporate bodies and political elites that work in tandem with them.     

The proposed EIA 2020 aims to reduce the legal and social standards for environmental scrutiny of projects, especially the unsustainable and destructive ones. A public input for proposed and expanding projects has further been reduced and many critical projects are outside the purview of public consultations. The draft EIA notification will only legitimise environmentally degrading projects. The draft will further facilitate the government’s legalised take-over of the nature and environment, intrinsic to community’s survival, identity, and culture. Indeed, the EIA 2020 is designed to deny citizens the social, legal, and political forums available, to protect the environment from government decisions affecting the people and environment.   
 
The failure to conduct impact assessment and additional exemptions by the draft EIA, 2020 especially conceding to oil companies and mining companies will intensify widespread environmental and social impacts by multinational companies with Government and plundering of indigenous peoples’ land and natural resources in Manipur. The draft EIA notification, if it comes into force is a move towards seeking investment and business friendly environment. The implementation of the new draft EIA notification will entail widespread destruction of the rich ecology and biodiversity of North East given the 200 mega dam, extensive oil exploration, mining plan and infrastructure projects pursued aggressively in Manipur and across India’s NE region. The environmental impact assessments are crucial for energy projects, extractive industries, infrastructure projects etc. pursued in an ecologically fragile place like Manipur. It will be imprudent for Manipur to leave its land and pristine resources to profit mongering corporate bodies without public scrutiny.

The proposed amendment of the Draft EIA notification 2020 should be completely scraped. The government should ensure provisions to conduct detailed and holistic impact assessment on environment, social, health, cultural and other impacts by development projects with due rightful participation of all communities to foster sustainable development that really benefits the people. Environmental regulations and accountability mechanisms for corporates, international financial institutions and States rather needs to be strengthened to meet India’s sustainable development goals and climate change mitigation objectives.

First Published:July 4, 2020, 8:50 p.m.

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