- Earlier this year, the Indian government came out with the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 seeking to overhaul the norms governing the environment clearance process for industrial projects.
- The draft came under severe criticism with experts and environmentalists alleging that it seeks to dilute the present laws. To ensure wider public participation and consultation before the changes are made, several groups started campaigns including mass emails to the environment ministry.
- India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar’s complaint to Delhi Police against the mass emails to his inbox led to action against three environmental collectives – Let India Breathe, Fridays For Future India and There is No Earth B. The three websites were blocked and the police issued a notice under the stringent anti-terror law, which it later withdrew claiming there was an error.
- The government’s action has led to a renewed opposition to the draft EIA 2020. The final deadline for public consultation ends on August 11.
Earlier this month, a complaint from India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar to the Delhi police against mass emails to his inbox led to blocking of websites of three environment collectives that were seeking wider consultations and scrapping of a proposed dilution in country’s environmental norms. While the move was criticised for alleged digital censorship, it also ended up reigniting the public’s interest in the issue.
Following the minister’s complaint, the Cyber Crime Unit of the Delhi Police issued a notice on July 8 to Fridays For Future India, under India’s anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The use of this law in this particular case drew criticism for its severity. The police then claimed inadvertent error and withdrew that notice on July 16. Currently, the websites have been unblocked, though individual claims about certain internet service providers that are continuing to block the websites still prevail.
The blocking of the websites of the three environment collectives – Let India Breathe, Fridays For Future India and There is No Earth B – came after their respective campaigns in recent months to mobilise public support to protest against Indian government’s proposed draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 which seeks to replace the EIA notification 2006. The EIA notification regulates the process of environment clearance which is required by projects such as dams, mining, thermal power plants, highways, ports, airports and townships.
The draft was put in the public domain on March 12 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate change (MoEFCC) with a time period of 60 days for views and comments from all stakeholders. However, the draft came under fire for allegedly weakening the 2006 version in favour of industry by proposing a system to legitimise projects that violate the norms by starting work without valid clearance, expands the list of projects exempted from the public consultation, and fails to ensure a robust post-environment clearance monitoring system. A zero draft of the EIA notification was released in 2019 and that time too it was severely criticised.
Subsequently, following campaigns pushing for a longer time period for wider public consultation considering that the country was under a lockdown to control COVID-19 spread, the date for comments was extended till June 30, which was yet considered too soon a deadline.
Later, environmentalists approached the Delhi High Court which then, on June 30, extended the time for consultation till August 11 and also ordered the MoEFCC to publish the draft EIA 2020 in 22 official languages of the country so that there is wider participation with the public about a law that could have wide-ranging implications on the environment. The Karnataka High Court, which is also hearing a case in the matter, has warned that it may stay the proposed notification if the central government does not publish it in all official languages to ensure a wider consultation.
During the extended consultation period, experts, activists, non-governmental organisations and collectives such as these three upped the ante against the draft EIA 2020 and mobilised public support against it providing ways to reach out to the government. One of the offerings of these websites was email templates for citizens to participate in public consultation to the Draft EIA 2020 which could be used by individuals to send emails with their concerns to the environment minister. The minister filed a complaint to the police against the influx of emails which then led to the temporary blocking of these websites.
Government’s digital censorship is a blessing in disguise, say activists
Though the environmentalists and those leading such groups rue the digital censorship by the central government they admit that the action has led to a renewed interest in the subject.
Yash Marwah, who is a volunteer with Let India Breathe, a collective of people who are resisting dilution of India’s environment laws and seeking proper implementation of present laws, said that due to this controversy, there has been new energy in the movement against the draft EIA 2020 which is a violation of the present norms.
“Many eminent personalities have spoken against the government’s unsaid censorship. Areas like Tamil Nadu, from where we had people protesting against the dilution, have now seen a spike in the number of people also speaking against it (the censorship),” Marwah told Mongabay-India.
He emphasised that the while the government is yet to publish the draft of EIA 2020 in vernacular Indian languages, as directed by the court to ensure large wider public discussion on the issue, digital content creators across the country are creating regional content and spreading awareness about the draft and how it will affect local ecology.
During the consultation period, the environment ministry has sent over 78,000 emails to project proponents seeking their views on proposed changes in the EIA notification.
The turn of events has also led to a social media argument between Javadekar and India’s former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, a leader of the country’s main opposition party, over the issue. As per a statement on social media, the Congress party is now seeking the scrapping of the draft EIA 2020.
A petition on change.org rejecting the draft EIA 2020, started by an educational platform Dinq India and addressed to the environment ministry, has already been signed by more than 150,000 people. Beyond the online sphere, which was the main medium for the protests during the lockdown, some youth also carried out protests outside the MoEFCC office in Delhi.
An email query from Mongabay-India to Javadekar seeking his view on the charge of digital censorship and if there are any plans to widen consultations remains unanswered.
Websites of environmental groups still inaccessible on some ISPs
Though Fridays For Future India is yet to get any official response from Delhi Police about the withdrawal of notice and while its website or of other collectives have been unblocked, the activists claim that the sites continue to remain inaccessible on certain internet service providers.
Marwah of Let India Breathe said they never received any notice from Delhi Police when they were charged and their website was blocked. “There has been no communication even after the withdrawal of notice from police. There has been no communication from our internet service provider and no reply even to the notice that we served to Delhi Police. At present, it is like semi-censorship as there is this constant complaint that our websites are still blocked by many internet service providers across India … In this whole back and forth, nearly four weeks of precious time has been lost,” said Marwah.
Krupa Hebbar, a volunteer with the FFF India, said that they too are yet to hear anything from Delhi Police.
“The last notice we had from Delhi Police was about us being charged under the UAPA but since then we have had no official communication about the inadvertent error that police claimed. As per media reports, the notice was withdrawn and apparently a fresh notice was issued, but we have no official written/electronic communication about UAPA’s withdrawal … FFF India is just a movement of young Indians. Though our website is back online there is still a lot of uncertainty as there are reports about it being blocked by some ISPs,” Hebbar told Mongabay-India. There are over 10,000 volunteers connected to the FFF India in over 60 Indian cities.
This is not the first time that Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government of India has cracked down on organisations protesting against dilution of environmental norms. Easing or environmental norms to promote ease of business, which environmentalists call a dilution of green laws, is something that the government has been consistent on since assuming power in May 2014. In 2014, the government had initiated action Greenpeace India on charges of misappropriation of funds which led to curtailed operations of this environmental group that is known across the world to take a hard stance against the governments on environmental issues.
Banner image: A thermal power plant in Tamil Nadu. Photo from Unsplash.