The Indian Government’s release of 2020’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification has been met with resistance. Many groups, including the Supreme Court, have called for the EIA notification to be released in all recognized languages.
The Indian Government has found itself locked in a dispute with the Supreme Court and environmentalists about public access to government documents. The central government had published the 2020 EIA notification earlier this year. The release of the document followed the 1963 Official Languages Act, which stipulates the government must publish notifications only in Hindi and English.
Environmental activists and civil society groups have raised alarms about the limited access to the EIA notification, citing the importance of public input about the controversial changes in environmental law that the EIA notification proposes. The changes proposed in the document have to do with how the environment ministry will handle post facto clearance of projects that could pose negative impacts on the environment.
Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta — founder and organizing trustee of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) — said in an interview with Livemint, “The central idea behind post facto is that if a person invests large sums of money in an illegal activity, such as construction of a shopping mall, mining, industry, there is a presumption that the investments made were bona fide: with the intention to benefit the nation as a whole and for altruistic purpose. There is also a presumption that the law was violated because of ‘ignorance’.”
The debate over how the government will proceed with its monitoring of developmental impacts on the environment has only been amplified by the limitations of input from the population at large.
A country whose constitution recognizes 22 official languages, India serves a broad and diverse population, many of whom speak neither Hindi nor English. The disparity in access to the EIA notification led the Dehli High Court to file a plea seeking contempt action against the government for not publishing the EIA notifications with language options for the score of other languages not covered by the Official Languages Act.
Although the Supreme Court stayed the contempt proceedings against the environment ministry, it recommends the central government adhere to the request and adopt an amendment to the Official Languages Act that reflects India’s multilingual population.
“Your government should consider amendment of the Official Languages Act. These days, translation is the easiest thing on Earth. We translate judgments, Parliament has instant translation software. It is time for you to update your Act,” a bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Sharad Arvind Bobde told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.
While the central government’s access to language services and translation resources is not clear, communities in India have made progress this year to develop machine translation applications, which they hope will promote better multilingual communications.
Facing nearly 200,000 objections to the draft of the EIA notification, RP Gupta, secretary of the environment ministry, still insisted the importance of what he believes will be a streamlined process of environmental clearances. In an interview with the Hindustan Times, he said, “I don’t think there is anything disturbing in the clauses. You are right about political issues. Maybe it has nothing to do with an environmental agenda but more to do with political agenda.” He did not comment on the document’s inaccessibility to many of India’s language groups.