In the grip of a disaster, yet Kerala delays its response to Centre's plan to do away with EIA

Paddy fields of Palakkad

At a time when natural calamities are threatening to be annual affairs, the LDF government's stand on the Draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2020, issued by the Centre has come under the spotlight.

The last day of the extended deadline for the public to send their opinions on the draft will end on August 11 and Kerala has still not firmed up its policy response to the Draft EIA.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Monday responded to a question on the government's delayed response to the Draft EIA in a tentative manner, as though his government has not yet put its mind on the issue. "In general, we are not in agreement with what is in it," he said. Nonetheless, he said the government's response would be given within the prescribed time.

The Draft EIA, 2020, has essentially done away with the need for Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and public consultations for a large number of sensitive projects that could affect the lives and livelihoods of thousands including gas and oil exploration, harbours and ports, power projects and mining.

The Draft EIA has inserted a new category called B2 and for projects listed under it there is no need for an EIA and public consultations. The Draft, therefore, proposes three categories: A, B1 and B2.

Instant development or recipe for disaster

To secure environment clearance for projects under A and B1, the project proponents have to pass through five arduous steps – scoping (the process of determining the Terms of Reference by the regulatory authority for the preparation of EIA Report), preparation of a draft EIA, public consultation, and preparation of final EIA - before the proposal is either granted clearance or rejected.

For B2 projects, there are just two steps before the final decision: preparation of an Environment Managament Plan (EMP) report, a highly diluted version of EIA, and then an appraisal by a state-level body.

Here are some of the activities that would not require the preparation of an EIA and public consultations: mining of minor minerals within 12.6 acres, offshore and onshore oil and gas, hydel power up to 25 MW and thermal power up to 15 MW, all small and medium enterprises including cement plants, country liquor units, water aerodromes and heliports for commercial use, ropeways over ecologically sensitive zones, all inland waterway projects including ports, harbours and breakwaters.

Summary eviction

Even the expansion or widening of existing National Highways or Expressways or Multi-modal corridors or Ring Roads between 25 km to 100 km involving a widening of more than 70 metres need not require an EIA or consultations with the affected population. To offer a perspective, none of the highways in Kerala, because of its population density, is wider than 45 metres. If the Draft becomes law, people can be summarily evicted from their homes if the government is intent on constructing a highway, or widening an existing one. There are also concerns whether the affected would be entitled to compensation.

Lulu-sized malls can have their way


Building construction and area development projects with a built up area of up to 1.50 lakh square metres, too, don't require EIA or public consultations. Lawyer and activist Harish Vasudevan, in his Facebook post, noted that 1.50 lakh sq mts is 37 acres.

Even Kerala's biggest mall, Lulu Mall, has a built up area of only 57,600 sq mts (14.2 acres). "So this means that the Environment Department will have no say in enforcing green norms in buildings coming up in less than 37 acres. If a new shopping mall comes up in 35 acres, our Department will not have the power to insist on solar lighting or rain water harvesting in the building. What's more, they cannot even ask the owners not to dump their waste in the nearby stream," Harish Vasudevan said.

LDF government's poor record

If the LDF government's had not been emphatic in its opposition to the Draft EIA, activists say it was because its environment record was highly suspect. After the 2018 floods, the plan was to rebuild Kerala, to dump callous old ways of development. But nothing has changed, as the 2020 floods demonstrated.

Recently in June, the Cabinet had decided that buildings coming up on an area of up to 20,000 sq mts need not take a permit to dig the ground for laying the foundation. The limit till now was 300 sq mts.

The LDF government had also eased mining activities in a big way. In 2017, it had halved the distance a quarry has to keep from roads, canals, rivers, and residential buildings to 50 metres. A year later, citing severe shortage of construction materials, the government had made it even more easy for quarry owners to get environment clearance.

Two, it did away with the need for the district collector’s no-objection certificate to mine ordinary clay.

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