Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)

Mohamed Asif Ben Mammutty

Environmental Impact Assessment, abbreviated as EIA has been a hot topic  amongst the environmentalists, ecologists, activists and a part of general public in the past several months. The discussions on EIA was triggered by the Union Government initiative to amend the erstwhile EIA without following the international protocols or proper discussions.

Protection of the ecosystem and environment, and conservation of biodiversity is of paramount importance for the survival of the flora and fauna and the posterity. Even small damages inflicted on the environment shall end up in devastative outcomes. This fact has driven the international community to formulate protocols, codes and laws to ensure protection of the environment and ecosystem. EIA is such an environment conservation tool.

What Is EIA

In simple terms, Environmental Impact Assessment or EIA is the process or study that assesses the impact of a proposed industrial or infrastructural project on the environment. It prevents the proposed activity or project from being approved without proper oversight or considering the adverse consequences that the activity or project might cause. A decision-making tool, EIA compares various alternatives for a project and seeks to identify the one which represents the best combination of economic and environmental costs and benefits.

Beneficial and adverse consequences of the project are identified and systematically examined in the process of EIA and it ensures that these effects are taken into account during project design. Based on the assessment, measures to mitigate adverse effects are suggested and any significant adverse environmental effects even after the implementation of mitigation measures, are predicted. This process of considering the environmental impact of the project and its mitigation in the early stages of project planning helps protection of environment, optimum utilisation of resources and saving of time and cost. Community participation being a key step in the EIA process, it helps to address the concerns of the people in the vicinity, who would be affected by the project. This further helps in establishing environmentally sound projects.

Evolution of EIA

EIA is an innovative environment conservation initiative of 20th century.  EIA as a mandatory regulatory procedure originated in the early 1970s; it is a formal process in many countries and is currently practiced in more than 100 countries.

In India, EIA was triggered when the Planning Commission asked the Department of Science and Technology to examine the river-valley projects from an environmental angle, in 1976-77.  Such study was subsequently extended to cover those projects, which required the approval of the Public Investment Board. Environmental clearance from the Central Government was an administrative decision and lacked legislative support till 1994.

In 1994, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MEF), Government of India, under the Environmental (Protection) Act 1986, promulgated an EIA notification making Environmental Clearance (EC) mandatory for expansion or modernisation of any activity or for setting up new projects listed in Schedule 1 of the notification. Since then there have been 12 amendments made in the EIA notification of 1994.

The September 2006 EIA notification by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) made it mandatory for various projects such as mining, thermal power plants, river valley, infrastructure (road, highway, ports, harbours and airports) and industries including very small electroplating or foundry units to get environment clearance. This notification put the onus of clearing projects on the state government depending on the size/capacity of the project.

Similar clearance is required for certain activities permissible under the Coastal Regulation Zone Act, 1991. Additionally, financing agencies operating in India like the World Bank and the ADB have a different set of requirements for giving environmental clearance to projects that are funded by them.

Importance of EIA

  • EIA links environment with development for environmentally safe and sustainable development.
  • EIA provides a cost-effective method to eliminate or minimize the adverse impact of developmental projects.
  • EIA enables the decision makers to analyse the effect of developmental activities on the environment well before the developmental project is implemented.
  • EIA encourages the adaptation of mitigation strategies in the developmental plan.
  • EIA makes sure that the developmental plan is environmentally sound and within the limits of the capacity of assimilation and regeneration of the ecosystem.

Stakeholders in the EIA Process

  • Those who propose the project
  • The environmental consultant who prepare EIA on behalf of project proponent
  • Pollution Control Board (State or National)
  • Public has the right to express their opinion
  • The Impact Assessment Agency
  • Regional centre of the MoEFCC

There had been eight stages of EIA cycle before the 2006 Amendment. Now it comprises of four stages:

Screening: The project plan is screened for scale of investment, location and type of development and if the project needs statutory clearance.

Scoping: The project’s potential impacts, zone of impacts, mitigation possibilities and need for monitoring.

Public hearing: On completion of the EIA report, public and environmental groups living close to project site may be informed and consulted.

Appraisal: An Appraisal Committee constituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests will first scrutinise a project based on the data presented by the project authorities.

If necessary, the MoEF may also hold consultations with the investors and experts on specific issues as and when necessary. After considering all the facets of a projects, environmental clearance is accorded subject to implementation of the stipulated environmental safeguards. In case of projects where the project proponents have submitted complete information, a decision is taken within 90 days.

Earlier this year, the government redrafted the EIA again to incorporate the amendments and relevant court orders issued since 2006, and to make the EIA “process more transparent and expedient.”

The major negatives of the 2020 amendments are:

The amendments proposed in the notification are in contravention to the scope and spirit of Section 3 of the Environmental Protections Act (1986) itself.

The notification has totally ignored the devastating impact on the ecosystem and environment if the amendments are implemented, though the notification states that it seeks to make the EIA process more transparent and expedient.

Sufficient time was not given to the stakeholders to submit their feedback. This is violation of the Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, and the principle of Natural Justice. It is the court interventions that have made it possible for the public to register their opinions.

Relaxation of many strict norms will definitely lead to the exploitation of the nature by large corporates and business houses.

Provision for post-facto clearance and non-requirement of EIA for B2 projects including potentially harmful ones like river valley projects, tanneries, many chemical manufacturing units, petrochemical industries, expansion of national highways, etc.  will only help the greedy entrepreneurs and it will open the doors for heavy corruption.

The proposals that the companies no longer need to have a compulsory public hearing; companies need not submit compliance reports every six months, but annually, reduction of time provided for submission of public response from 30 to 20 days during public hearings and the public hearing process has to be completed in 40 days instead of 45 days will undoubtedly undermine the very spirit and objectives of the Environment Laws and the EIA.

The proposal enables the companies to implement projects without the approval from the people or environmental organisations. This shall definitely end up in mass displacement of people along with irreversible environmental damage. The government gets empowered to take decisions without the involvement of people affected. The companies that would enjoy this exemption include chemical industries that produce acids, paints, fertilisers, etc. which push out toxic wastes that are detrimental to the surrounding areas. These wastes cause contamination of water resources, air quality and soil quality.

The proposed amendment that relaxes the frequency of submitting compliance report help companies to cover up their lapses and non-compliance with ease. It would further debilitate the hold, if any, of the Environment Ministry on the companies on exploiting the natural resources.

The proposal that denies sufficient time to the people who would be affected by the project to prepare and present their views, comments and suggestions; turns such public hearings a mockery. The time reduction would be affecting those people in areas where information is not easily accessible, the most.

The 2020 draft offers no remedy for the political and bureaucratic stronghold on the EIA process, and thereby on industries. Instead, it proposes to bolster the government’s discretionary power while limiting public engagement in safeguarding the environment.

While projects concerning national defence and security are naturally considered strategic, the government gets to decide on the “strategic” tag for other projects. The 2020 draft says no information on “such projects shall be placed in the public domain”. This opens a window for summary clearance for any project deemed strategic without having to explain why.

Additionally, the new draft exempts a long list of projects from public consultation. For example, linear projects such as roads and pipelines in border areas will not require any public hearing. The ‘border area’ is defined as “area falling within 100 kilometres aerial distance from the Line of Actual Control with bordering countries of India.” That would cover much of the Northeast, the repository of the country’s richest biodiversity, and for this very reason the damage that would be caused by the amendments could be imagined by anyone.

(with inputs from the web)