In light of the proposed changes to the law governing the environment impact assessment (EIA) process in India, there has been much debate with concerns being raised regarding the legitimacy and efficacy of the proposed process. While the new EIA law is yet to be notified and chances are that the draft notification which was circulated for comments may see some changes when notified finally, the lockdown due to the pandemic has posed new challenges for conducting the EIA, especially the 'public hearings' in light of the social distancing requirements. 'Public hearing' is one of the most crucial aspects of the EIA process. The purpose of organizing a public hearing is twofold - first, it provides those likely to be affected by the project an opportunity to understand the benefits of the project; and second, it provides a platform and opportunity to the local people, who are likely to be affected by the project, to voice their concerns. These concerns are then scrutinized in detail by the regulatory authority responsible for granting environmental clearance. Given the confinement and social distancing norms which each of us are required to follow, it may not be feasible to conduct the public hearings.

Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006 regulates the EIA process in India. As per Clause 7(i) of the EIA Notification 2006, the stage of public consultation is mandatory for the grant of environmental clearance in India for all Category 'A' and Category 'B1' projects or activities. The concerned State Pollution Control Board or the Pollution Control Committee is responsible for widely publicizing public hearing and the notice of the public hearing is to be published in at least two daily newspapers out of which one has to be in regional vernacular language. A minimum notice period of 30 days has to be provided to the public for furnishing their responses. 

Owing to COVID-19, the Government of India had imposed certain restrictions on public gatherings and these restriction are being amended time to time. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) vide an Order bearing No. 40-3/2020-DM-I(A) dated 29 August, 2020 has permitted social/academic/sports/entertainment/cultural/religious/political functions and other congregations with a ceiling of 100 persons with effect from 21 September 2020, with mandatory wearing of face masks, social distancing, provision for thermal scanning and hand wash or use of sanitizer.

In order to address the dilemma surrounding organizing effective public hearing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has issued an Office Memorandum (OM) bearing File No. 22-25/2020-IA.III dated 14 September 2020. The said OM directs that public hearing may be carried out in accordance with the above-mentioned Order issued by MHA as amended from time to time. Additionally, the said OM issued by MoEF&CC also mandates taking into account following guidelines for conducting public hearing during the pandemic:

  1. The State/Union Territory (UT) Pollution Control Boards/Committees shall restrict the number of persons gathered, to the ceiling specified by the MHA from time to time, for a single hearing and conduct the public hearing with adequate social distancing and other safe guards as issued by the Government from time to time.
  2. If the number of participants is more than such ceiling, more than one public hearing shall be conducted by staggering the time and/or dates.
  3. Use of virtual platform/online facilities may also be employed in addition to the physical public hearing process.
  4. The State/UT Pollution Control Boards/Committees may also obtain responses in writing from concerned persons having a plausible stake in the environmental aspects of the project or activity, through electronic means.
  5. On completion of the said processes, the State/UT Pollution Control Boards/Committees shall submit the summary of the issues raised during physical public hearings or received in written or through e-mail or other electronic mode along with the response of the project proponent along with a certificate from District Magistrate or his authorized representative not below the rank of Additional District Magistrate, to the Regulatory Authority as per the procedure prescribed in EIA Notification 2006 as amended from time to time.

Even though the impact of these guidelines on public hearings during the pandemic remains to be seen, these guidelines issued by MoEF&CC prove to be a benchmark in safeguarding the principle of democratic participatory governance, thereby reiterating the significance of public hearing in the EIA process.

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