NEW DELHI—The Delhi High Court on Tuesday extended the time limit for public consultation about the controversial Draft Environment Impact Assessment notification till August 11.
The Narendra Modi government’s environment ministry was persistent in its position that it can give time only till June 30 but the court directed it to grant more time while hearing a public interest litigation filed by activist Vikrant Tongad. The PIL was filed last week seeking extension of time till September 30 for the ongoing public consultation relating to the controversial draft law for green clearances.
The court expressed its surprise at the “obstinacy” of the Prakash Javadekar-led union environment ministry about the deadline during the hearing, according to a person who attended it. The court wondered what “urgency” the government felt in pushing through this notification during the coronavirus lockdown, this person said.
In a detailed report, based on documents accessed through the right to information, HuffPost India revealed on 25 June that the ministry officials had suggested Javadekar to extend the time till 10 August. But, without giving any reasons, he decided 30 June as the last date for submitting comments and criticisms about the draft notification.
“We hope that, in the additional time given, the postal services improve enough for citizens who do not have internet access and live in distant parts of the country to voice their opinions about the draft notification.”
Earlier today, the ministry filed an affidavit in response to the court’s order on Monday directing it to respond to the submission by Tongad’s lawyers that there had been a “typographical error” by the ministry while publishing the draft notification on April 11 in the official gazette and, going by norms, the last date for consultations should have been 11 August 2020 instead of 30 June 2020. The ministry’s response does not touch upon this specific aspect though the court’s order on Monday specifically asked it to “clarify” this. The two judge bench comprising Chief Justice D N Patel and Justice Pratik Jalan noted this and criticised the ministry for not clarifying the issue of dates.
In the reply, the ministry also stated that it had sent emails to 78, 706 project proponents seeking their comments and suggestions to the draft to argue that it had carried out wider consultations. But, according to the person cited earlier, the petitioners’ lawyers criticised this saying that the ministry was seeking views of project proponents by reaching out to them but not the wider public.
They also pointed out that the notification had been published only in two languages—Hindi and English—and not other regional languages so the consultation process could not be considered participatory. They cited the example of the pre-draft of the Coastal Regulation Zone 2011 when the ministry published it in nine coastal languages in 2010 for wide consultations to reinforce this point.
Petitioner Vikrant Tongad welcomed the court order, even though the court did not fully grant his prayer of extending the time for consultations to September 30, calling it a “victory of citizens”. He also said that this is only an “interim relief” for citizens who are concerned about the environment and would like to register their protest with the minister or in other forms offline and not just on the internet.
“We hope that, in the additional time given, the postal services improve enough for citizens who do not have internet access and live in distant parts of the country to voice their opinions about the draft notification,” said Tongad. But the petitioner also specified that the actual challenge is presented by the controversial provisions in the draft notification and so it lies in the future.