Environment Impact Assessment

Environmentalists have slammed a plan by the MOEFCC to “rank” and “incentivize” States based on how soon they can issue environmental permits to proposed infrastructure projects, claiming it violates basic environmental principles. According to centre the ranking criteria was not intended to accelerate the speed with which clearances were accorded but to encourage the SEIAA to take quicker decisions on approving or rejecting a project and adhere to timelines already specified by the provisions of the Act.

Environment Impact Assessment

  • It is a planning tool to integrate the environmental concerns into developmental process right at the initial stage of planning and suggest necessary mitigation measures.
  • EIA essentially refers to the assessment of environmental impacts likely to arise from a project.
  • Section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 (EPA) gives power to the Central Government to take all measures that it deems necessary or expedient for the purpose of protecting and improving the quality of the environment and preventing and controlling, abating environmental pollution. Mandate for EIA has been under this section.

Stages of EIA

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Issues with EIA process

  • Conflict of Interest: EIA is funded by the same agency which is implementing the project, and hence the primary concern of that agency is to obtain clearance.
  • Discretion in the hands of state government: The problem is that categorising the projects is in the hands of state level committees, and these committees are formed by the state governments.
  • EIA reports are plagiarised and often spread misinformation:
    • Many a times EIA reports are plagiarised. EIA reports of one project is copied and pasted into other, defeating the whole purpose. There is also a lack of scientific approach in the way the report is prepared.
    • Moreover, since there is no process for punishing the agencies tabling such dishonest EIA reports, there is no deterrence for such acts.
  • Poor quality of EIA professionals: The individuals involved in the process lack knowledge in the field of environment and ecology.
  • Issues related to public hearing:
    • Lack of awareness among local people about EIA process. Notification issues due to publication of EIA process in the local newspaper and not in every panchayat. Most of the time, local people are unaware of the Public hearing meetings. Unavailability of EIA in local languages affects the capacity of most of the rural people to participate in the process.
    • The issues raised by people in public hearings remains unanswered and they do not know what happens to the issues, nor do they know if the issues raised are reflected in public hearing reports that is presented to Ministry of Environment and forests
  • Lack of larger outlook while conducting EIA: EIA remains focused on very small aspect of the projects and do not assess the overall impact on ecology.

Criticism of EIA rating system

  • Could lead to negligence on behalf of state EIA authorities.
  • The system will guarantee that SEIAA’s goal is to complete projects in quickest period feasible overlooking environmental concerns.
  • Because seasonal variations have an influence on a given area’s biodiversity profile, penalising SEIAAs for obtaining extra information more than once may lead to them awarding clearances with insufficient data.
  • Generates artificial rivalry between states, which might lead to firms moving to areas that provide speedier environmental clearance.
  • The pressures of speed, efficiency, and incentivizing environmental governance may tilt it in favour of business.

Draft environment impact assessment rule, 2020

  • Ex post facto environmental clearance: This rule allows any industry working in violation of the Environment (Protection) Act to apply for clearance. 
  • Reduction of public consultation: Generally, the interested stakeholders are given a period of 30 days to raise any concerns regarding the preliminary report of the assessment. The draft EIA 2020 seeks to reduce this period to a mere 20 days.
  • Reducing the Number of Compliance Reports: The Compliance Report contains all the norms and regulations which are being followed by industries on a regular basis. It is an essential aspect of EIA since it helps the concerned authorities to put a system of checks and balance. However, as per the draft EIA 2020, this period has been increased to one year, granting unwarranted freedom to industrial units to grossly violate the environmental norms and cover it up with ease.
  • Empowering the central govt. to declare certain projects as ‘strategic’: Once a particular project has been labelled/categorised as ‘strategic’ by the central government, information regarding it shall be removed from the public domain. Any information regarding environmental violations thus remain a privy to the government.
  • Exclusion of projects: Clause 26 of the Draft EIA Notification 2020 excludes a long list of projects from the purview of EIA. Further, Clause 14 of the said Notification excludes a number of projects from public consultation. Further, public consultation has also been exempted for the projects falling under Category B2.
  • MoEF&CC has published the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020, with the intention of replacing the existing EIA Notification, 2006.

Issues pertaining to draft EIA Notification 2020

  • Post-Facto Approval: It means that the clearances for projects can be awarded even if they have started construction or have been running phase without securing environmental clearances.
    • This also means that any environmental damage caused by the project is likely to be waived off as the violations get legitimised. As the only remedy would be to impose a fine or punishment; but that would not reverse the detrimental consequences on the environment.
    • Post facto approval is the derogation of the fundamental principles of environmental jurisprudence and violation of the “precautionary principle,” which is a principle of environmental sustainability.
    • In 2017, post-facto clearance given to projects in Tamil Nadu was struck down by the Madras high court.
  • Public Consultation Process: The draft notification provides for a reduction of the time from 30 days to 20 days for the public to submit their responses during a public hearing for any application seeking environmental clearance.
    • The danger is that if adequate time is not given for the preparation of views, comments and suggestions to those who would be affected by the project, then such public hearings would not be meaningful.
    • Unless a public hearing is meaningful, the whole EIA process would lack transparency and credibility.
    • Further, the reduction of time would particularly pose a problem in those areas where information is not easily accessible or areas in which people are not that aware of the process itself.
  • Compliance Report Issue: The 2006 notification required that the project proponent submit a report every six months, showing that they are carrying out their activities as per the terms on which permission has been given.
    • However, the new draft requires the promoter to submit a report only once every year.
    • During this period, certain irreversible environmental, social or health consequences of the project could go unnoticed because of the extended reporting time.
    • For example, if a mining project is being carried out at someplace which can be potentially hazardous to the nearby population and can contaminate the air, and water nearby, a half-yearly compliance report would better help in addressing these concerns.
  • Bypassing EIA Process: Through the draft notification, the central government gets the power to categorise projects as “strategic.”
    • Once a project is considered as strategic, the draft notification states that no information related to such projects shall be placed in the public domain.
    • Violations can only be reported suo-motu by the project proponent, or by a government authority, appraisal committee, or regulatory authority. This is against the principles of natural justice.
    • Further, the draft notification states that the new construction projects up to 1,50,000 square meters (instead of the existing 20,000 square meters) do not need “detailed scrutiny” by the Expert Committee, nor do they need EIA studies and public consultation.

Way Forward

  • Independent EIA Authority
    • Which will be responsible for conducting/regulating EIAs.
    • There is a need for Sector wide EIAs.
    • It is vital that the EIA be prepared without the involvement of the project proponent.
  • Applicability:
    • Without exception, all projects that are expected to have a substantial impact on ecosystems must go through the environmental clearance process.
    • No industrial developmental activity should be permitted in ecologically sensitive areas.
  • Public hearing:
    • All previously exempt categories of projects with environmental consequences should be subject to public hearings.
    • The focus of EIA should change from natural resource consumption and exploitation to natural resource conservation.
  • Grant of clearance:
    • The notification should state explicitly that the provision for site clearance does not mean that the effect Assessment agency will provide full environmental clearance.
  • Composition of expert committees:
    • The present executive committees should be replaced by expert people from various stakeholder groups, who are reputed in environmental and other relevant fields.
  • Monitoring, compliance and institutional arrangements:
    • The EIA notification should include an automatic withdrawal of clearance if the requirements of clearance are not met, as well as more severe penalties for noncompliance. Currently, EIA notification is limited to the point at which environmental clearance is granted.
    • The composition of the NGT needs to be changed to include more judicial persons from the field of environment.
    • Citizen should be able to access the authority for redressal of all violation of the EIA notification, as well as issues relating to non-compliance.
  • Capacity building:
    • NGOs, civil society groups and local communities need to build their capacities to use the EIA notification towards better decision making on projects.
    • Dissemination of all information related to projects from notification to clearance to local communities and the public.
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