What the new green clearance regime will mean for India’s Northeast

Sayan Banerjee | Down to Earth

India’s northeastern region — comprising Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura — is a unique biodiversity hotspot. The region, however, faces many environmental problems.

Successive Indian forest surveys in 2015, 2017 and 2019 reported net deforestation of 628, 630 and 765 square kilometres in the region respectively.

This gradual decline in general and decrease of very dense forests — with canopy cover greater than 70 per cent — is particularly alarming. During 2001-2018, 75 per cent of the total tree cover loss outside the recorded forest area in India occurred in this region.

The region is prone to multiple cycles of heavy floods, grade-V earthquakes and landslides due to hydrological and seismic fragility.

In 2020, almost 28 of 33 districts at the Barak and Brahmaputra valleys in Assam reeled under floods, 23 small-scale earthquakes hit Mizoram within five weeks and multiple causalities due to landslides occurred in Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and other hilly areas.

A recent government report presented in the climate summit at Katowice, Poland found the north-eastern states to be highly vulnerable to climate change due to low adaptive potential of demographic and livelihood factors.

The development of this region, thus, requires sound socio-ecological planning with proactive mitigation strategies to control the damage to the region’s ecology and society.

The environmental impact assessment (EIA), in this regard, becomes a mandatory exercise for ecologically sound development projects envisaged for the region.

Draft EIA notification 2020

In order to ensure ‘ease of doing business’, the draft EIA notification 2020 weakens the basic vision of EIA, that is, a proactive analysis of impacts on the environment by development projects and providing risk-mitigation strategies.

The proposed changes grant post-facto environmental clearance to industries that operate and pollute without consent from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

The participation of affected communities and the public in general was further limited by reducing the notice period for public hearing to 20 days from 30 days.

Several large-scale projects were re-categorised as B2 (projects that do not require EIA) and thus exempted from it. Given the environmental fragility of the North East, these changes can usher irreversible damage to the region.

Development outlook at north-eastern states

The northeastern region continues to face a violent extractive regime by the Indian state. Following Dolly Kikon’s work on extractive regimes at the Assam-Nagaland border, the entire northeastern region can be described as a “militarised hydro / carbon frontier”.

Successive governments visualised Arunachal Pradesh as the cradle of India’s hydropower, with there being a plan to develop almost 170 hydro-electric projects that provide around 70,000 megawatts (MW) of power, more than a third of India’s total hydro potential.

Only five per cent of the proposed hydropower projects were established till now, with the ecological future of this state bleak if the remaining hydro-potential is realised. A recent campaign against the proposed 3,097 MW Etalin hydropower project showed such projects were cleared with a limited understanding of socio-ecological impacts.

Assam, Meghalaya and parts of other states have experienced extraction of coal, allied minerals and oil and gas since the occupation of the British. The current extraction by Coal India Ltd in Assam is at 465 million tonnes (MT), out of the total coal prospect of 525 MT.

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