The ministry of environment, forest and climate change has issued a draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). It evaluates the impact of a proposed project that is likely to have significant environmental effects. It finds all the possible ways to reduce waste generation and optimize the usage of resources. The main goal is to facilitate sustainable development by ensuring that the proposed project does not compromise the vital resources and wellbeing of citizens. The new draft has limitations on public involvement, which is a key feature in the EIA; it has post facto clearance for the projects already violating the environment, no information will be provided to the public with the projects related to national defense and security, which means there will be less transparency in future. In the long run, this effort to increase our ranking in the ‘ease of doing business’ index could irrevocably harm our environment.
KEYWORDS – EIA, National Green Tribunal, Sustainable Development, Environment Protection and Fundamental Rights.
WHAT IS ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ASSESSMENT (EIA)
Environmental impact assessment (EIA) is a scientific study that predicts the effect of industrial projects on biodiversity, vegetation, ecosystem, air and water. EIA can be seen as a method to classify, predict, and analyze the possible environmental, social, cultural, and other impacts of a proposed project. It falls under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. EIA compares various alternatives and identifies the one which represents the best combination of economic and environmental cost benefits. One of the key features of this process is the participation of residents and their opinions on the operation of the project which makes it more credible. Currently, more than 100 countries have legislation in the implementation of EIA. In addition, the participation of the National Green Tribunal in the EIA process acts as a watchdog for its implementation.
The 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, one of the world’s worst industrial disasters that killed thousands of people in the areas around the union carbide plant and till decades made thousands of people deal with illness and morbidity. The disaster initiated the adoption of the 1986 Environment Protection Act focused on sustainable growth. In 1994 EIA guidelines were introduced in India. Although EIA was first introduced in the US Environment policy in the 1960s which inspired several countries that started adopting EIA policies during the 1970s.
IMPORTANCE OF EIA
- EIA can identify ecologically sensitive areas, which can have adverse effects on nature and citizens and guide in the project location.
- The scientific method helps in reducing duplication of man efforts which therefore reduces overall cost and saves time.
- EIA can identify the most suitable site which increases profit maximization and reduces environmental effects.
- EIA identifies both primary and secondary consequences of any proposed project which helps in setting safety protocol standards example – pollution control measures.
- EIA helps in planning efficient use of natural and human resources which is valuable to both the development sector and authorities responsible for environmental protection.
LIMITATIONS IN EIA
- Poor follow up and monitoring system.
- Lack of proper training in EIA methodologies and poor regulation of legal framework and institutional arrangement.
- Lack of availability of ground reports and unreliable data.
- Unsuitable recommendations that might not be affordable or achievable in terms of maintenance.
- Lack of inspection on alternative site location, advanced technology, designs, and construction methods.
STAGES OF EIA PROCESS
- Identifying and defining the project – To closely calculate the possible impacts on the environment give a brief description of the project and analyze various activities connected to the project.
- Screening – The cost, location, and the type of construction if it requires statutory approval.
- Scoping – Involving public, related NGOs, and interested parties for mitigating possibilities.
- Preparing terms of reference – It lays out the various issues and impacts identified in the scoping process. It shows which groups will be affected and the public agency overseeing the project. This is also known as the collection of baseline data.
- Preparing draft EIA – This stage requires a technical specialist for assessment of various conditions. The report contains actions and steps for minimizing the impact of the project. The draft should be in accordance with environmental policy.
- Public participation – After completion of the report communities living nearby the project sites are informed and consulted.
- Preparing final EIA – It is a report outlining all observations received from the general public and other potential parties and contains responses to their comments.
- Decision – Technical experts from impact assessment authority (IMA) along with various committee experts take the final decision. They may have to fulfill certain conditions depending on the kind of project, like filing an Environment Management Plan (EMP).
- Administrative or judicial review – Public and Judiciary bodies can review the final decision of the EIA process to address a procedural fault such as failure to hold a public hearing. The Administration can point out the substantial issue that the authority failed to consider.
Example – In the EIA 2020, the notification of the Supreme Court on April 1, 2020 disapproved of the concept of post-facto clearance saying “ecologically rational outlook” must be adopted.
- Project implementation – After all legislative standards are met and the license is granted, project development will start as per plan.
- Monitoring – There are various steps in monitoring:
- Maintaining adequate prevention measures in the undergoing process.
- Verify the reliability of models using 3D figures.
- Set up quality control standards at every level.
SALIENT FEATURES OF 2006 AMENDMENTS TO EIA NOTIFICATION
The 2006 EIA amendment categorized projects into two divisions ‘category A’ and ‘category B’ based upon their environmental impact. The ‘category A’ projects will be monitored by the central government and ‘category B’ projects by the state government. Two state-level committees were set up namely ‘state-level expert appraisal committee’ and ‘state-level impact assessment authority’ for auditing ‘category B’ projects. Meanwhile, ‘category A’ projects will be reviewed by the National Level Impact Assessment Agency (IAA) and Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC). Category A projects required compulsory project clearance and thus such projects do not require a screening process. After the 2006 amendment, EIA process consisted of 4 levels that is screening, scoping, public hearing, and appraisal.
RED FLAGS IN EIA NOTIFICATION
- Post facto project clearance – This implies that approval can be given even if they began construction or were operating without securing environmental clearance. A gas leak from the LG Polymers factory in Visakhapatnam, which had been running for more than two decades without environmental clearance, killed 12 people and deteriorated hundreds on 7 May, 2020. According to the new draft, this can be completely legal.
Two main priority areas of government which are Inland waterways and widening of national highways will be exempt from this clearance. Which includes cutting down forests, degrading major rivers.
- Public hearing time reduced – Latest draft poorly overlooks consultation with vulnerable communities. Now the public shall be issued with a minimum notice period of twenty days to provide their responses, which was earlier 30 days “to limit public consultation means to silence the voices that are barely heard otherwise,” said Joy Daniel Pradhan.
On May 27, 2020, an oil well in eastern Assam Tinsukia district experienced a major blowout. Oil India limited ignored public hearings before expanding their drilling.
- Exemptions from public participation – If the project violates any regulation on environmental law, the general public has no right to point out the violation. Now only the offender and government can point out the violation.
Projects exempted from public participation:
- Linear developments such as roads and pipelines in border regions do not require a public hearing. (Border area – area within 100km aerial distance from the line of actual control)
- Any offshore development located beyond 12 nautical miles.
- Remodeling of irrigation projects.
- Any project in the name of national defense and security which will be considered ‘strategic’ by the central government.
- All category ‘B2’ projects include thermal power plants, mineral beneficiation, metallurgical industries, cement plants, chemical fertilizers, man-made fiber manufacturing, etc.
- Expansion of large-scale projects (Category A and B) are allowed to expand
50% of current capacity.
- Strategic exemptions -National defense and security programs are usually labeled as strategic and the government now gets to decide for other projects on the “strategic” tag. The draft states no information about such projects would be published in the public domain. It opens a window for summary approval, without having to justify why, on any initiative considered strategic.
- Red category projects– Projects having a high impact can now commence within 5km of the protected area which was earlier 10km.
- Increased environmental validity-For mining, it has now been increased to 50 years which was earlier 30 years, and in river valley projects up till 15 years which used to be 10 years, which in turn can permanently damage rivers, sand, and other natural resources.
- Report submission – Ongoing projects will now have to submit only one report annually. Reports which lay out all necessary information to the public domain. Earlier it was one report every six months.
The fight against the current pandemic has shown us how fragile and unstable our production, distribution, and supply networks are. It is evident that ‘Grow Now, Sustain Later’should not be the approach as this policy is against the concept of sustainable development. COVID 19 has powerfully showcased the value of nature for our wellbeing. The committee instead of increasing time for public consultation has reduced 10 days from the EIA process which in turn can easily degrade our environment. Citizens of the country and those who are most vulnerable to the project should be given equal opportunity and appropriate hearing time. The case of Vellore, citizen welfare forum v Union of India (1996) stated that for the development of a country, companies are essential but we must keep a balance between them to achieve the doctrine of sustainable development.
In overview EIA 2020 is not only incorrect at some level but, in reality, is a list of all possible violations that one could imagine. Ease of doing business should not prevail over public health and nature. Now the government should reconsider the proposed changes and make the clearance process transparent by encouraging greater public involvement.
Author: Rishabh Patil, United World School of Law, Karnavati University
Image credits – Change.org