NEW DELHI: Opposition parties and civil groups in India have criticized the government’s proposed changes to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), a legal framework that assesses the effects of development projects on the environment.
The government wants to do away with mandatory environment clearance for such projects.
“The EIA 2020 draft is a disaster. It seeks to silence the voice of communities who will be directly impacted by the environmental degradation it unleashes,” the main opposition Congress party’s leader, Rahul Gandhi, said on Sunday.
On Tuesday, the Delhi High Court extended the deadline until August 11 for public feedback on the draft EIA changes.
“Not only does it have the potential to reverse many of the hard-fought gains that have been won over the years in the battle to protect our environment, but it could potentially unleash widespread environmental destruction and mayhem across India ... highly polluting industries such as coal mining and other mineral mining will no longer require Environmental Impact Assessment. Neither will highways or railway lines passing through dense forests and other eco sensitive areas, that will result in the massive hacking down of trees,” Gandhi tweeted on Sunday.
The draft change in the EIA follows the government’s decision on June 18 to open 41 coal blocks with a capacity to produce 225 million tons of coal per year. Making a departure from the past practice where coal mining was allowed only for producing electricity, the new policy allows private players to mine coal commercially without placing any end-use restrictions. The government expects an infusion of at least $5 billion in this sector in the next 5 to 7 years.
“We are not just launching the auction for commercial coal-mining today, but bringing the coal sector out of decades of lockdown,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said after the announcement.
However, environment activists and communities in the ecologically sensitive zones which are up for commercial mining are not happy with the decision. They fear losing their rights and livelihoods and complete environmental degradation of the ecologically important areas of the country.
“The commercial mining is a cultural and territorial invasion on the tribal people who have been living in the forest for ages and are part of the nature,” Umeshwar Singh Amra, a local village head in the Hasdeo Arand, a rich and biodiverse forest in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, told Arab News.
Out of the nine proposed coal blocks in Chhattisgarh, four are located in the Hasdeo Arand’s 420,000 acres of forest, which house an estimated 5 billion tons of coal.
“The government is concerned about profit, it is keen to hand over the dense forest to private commercial entities and destroy the ecological system of the region. The central government is exploiting the coronavirus induced lockdown in selling the national assets to its own business friends,” Amra said.
Former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh called the move “doubly” disastrous.
“Several coal blocks put up for auction today fall in dense forest areas classified as ‘no-go’ jointly by the Environment Ministry and Coal India in 2010. A doubly disastrous decision from an ecological point of view with terrible public health impacts!” he tweeted on June 18, a day after the policy announcement.
Environment activists are also up in arms against the commercialization of the coal belts which, since 1983, have been designated a national asset not to be used for commercial purposes.
The whole concept of commercial coal mining is dangerous,” said Alok Shukla, a social activist and convenor of the Save Chhattisgarh Movement.
“So far coal was mined keeping in mind the requirement of end use, like electricity and steel. In 2015, the Supreme Court said that coal is a precious national asset and it should be used for specific purposes. The argument behind this decision was that coal is located in sensitive ecological zones where precious natural resources are found and tribals live,” Shukla added.
“The Modi government has changed everything and opened coal mining for profeetering for private players. Most of the coal blocks are in a very ecologically sensitive zones.”
Gautam Bandopadhyay, a Chhattisgarh-based environmental activist, said that “the new coal mining is proposed to come into the dense forests which have been in existence for a thousand years, and this will be disastrous for ecology, and a loss of habitation and livelihoods for more than 40,000 families in the region.”
In the neighbouring state of Jharkhand in eastern India there is anger among people worried about losing their livelihoods and habitat.
“The government has not announced any rehabilitation policy if new coal blocks are opened in the region,” Santosh Rajwar, a local coal miner in Jharia district, told Arab News.
Jharia-based activist Pinaki Roy said that the new coal policy was a violation of human rights and dignity.
“This is a basic violation of human rights. It is also disastrous for environmental pollution. In the name of development, a new humanitarian crisis is being perpetuated and this will create havoc which the government is not anticipating in its maddening hurry to privatize the national resources.”