Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in simple terms can be defined as the tool to identify future consequences (maybe positive or negative) of a proposed action in advance. The process emphasizes that prevention is the right approach for environmental protection. This responsibility of environment protection shall be shared between the public, government and various business enterprises collectively. The success of an EIA is when economic development and social development of a country are placed in the environmental context. EIA is a tool which integrates public concerns and conveys it to the government and project developers, which aides in project planning in order to suite the end consumer, which is ultimately the Public.
Treaties and conventions mandate the goal towards which all countries must unanimously progress. To achieve this goal the countries need to adopt a range of policy instruments such as legislation, standards, planning targets and economic measures. Environmental impact assessment was first formally established by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 1969 in the USA and has since spread to other countries. A 1985 European Community directive 85/337/EEC on EIA was introduced with the aim that, broadly uniform requirements shall be adopted by all EU Member States. The directive has been amended to include the provisions of Espoo convention, Aarhus convention etc. In EU the various governments adopt their national regulations, designate relevant competent authorities and coordinate with local implementation to align with the overall directives.
EIA regulations were established in many Asian countries in the late 1980s. Presently more than 100 countries worldwide have established regulations for conducting EIA. Their expertise and the methodologies adopted for implementation matures over time and progresses towards continuous improvement and sustainable growth.
India is a fast growing economy with growth in urbanization, population and industrialization. It also has a history of unplanned developments which have put the safety of resources, environmental and social concerns in jeopardy. The country has faced disasters like the Bhopal Gas tragedy (1984) which highlighted the needs of safety in its processes. Hence the concept of environmental protection and effective management of resources have been emphasized from the eighties making way for the formulation of rules, laws and environmental policies by the Heads of the Nation.
India has a well-defined legal framework in place to safeguard the quality of environment. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC renamed in 2014) is presently the head of affairs in India for issues related to Environment. It was established as Department of Environment (DoE) in 1980 and renamed as MoEF in 1985. The law of the land is The Environment and Protection Act (EPA) which was passed in 1986.
India is a signatory to the RIO declaration, 1992 and its Principle 17 states that, “EIA shall be conducted of activities with adverse impacts on environment and clearance shall be subjected by a national level competent authority”. In lieu of this MoEF&CC passed the first notification to EPA for Environmental Clearance (EC) known as – Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 1994. It outlines the role of the ministry as follows: (a) preparation of the EIA report, involving scoping to documentation, (b) public hearing procedure, (c) review of EIA reports and decision-making and (d) post project monitoring. It also outlines time schedule for each of the process (Jitendra et al., 2012). Currently the EIA Notification, 2006 (MoEF, 2006) and its amendments are operational.
The state governments have stringent regulations based on their local conditions, but these should be in concord with national laws and regulations. In addition to strong legal provisions, special judicial construct like National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) was constituted in 1997 for settlement of grievances. Overall the various regulations and guidelines for EIA preparation and review are quite comprehensive and can possibly be compared with those of other developed countries.
The Ministry and its related execution agencies have a centralized framework with various activities at central, state and district levels involving many authorities and departments. The Impact Assessment (IA) division of MoEF&CC is responsible for implementation of the EIA notifications; it is. A multi-disciplinary Environmental Appraisal Committee (EAC) reviews the EIA reports and is constituted under IA. The Centre Pollution Control Board (CPCB) is an autonomous research wing for collecting, analyzing and disseminating information pertaining to pollution prevention. It has six Regional offices and functions under MoEF&CC.
At state level, State Pollution Control Board’s (SPCB) work under the State Department of Environment on matters ranging from formulation to executions of guidelines on pollution control measures, issue of No Objection Certificates (NOCs) and importantly they also conduct public hearings (MoEF, 1997).
Taking cue from international practice, the EIA process in India involves four basic steps, (a) screening and scoping,
(b) preparation of the EIA report, (c) review and decision making and (d) post project monitoring. For a project the entire process for EC clearance takes a total of 210 days.
Screening: Under the EIA notification of 1994 screening guidelines were issued for Industry, Mining, Thermal Power, River Valley & Hydroelectric and Infrastructure only. This was mainly to encourage more small scale industries, however this lead to ‘salami slicing’ by project proponents. Hence in EIA notification 2006, classification was done based on capacity level thresholds and also on potential impacts into ‘Project Category A’ and ‘Project Category B1 & B2’. For Category ‘A’ EC is given at Central level (MoEF) and for Category ‘B1, B2’ EC is at State Level (SEIAA/SEAC). The projects under category B2 do not require an EIA.
Scoping: Good scoping is the key factor in a good EIS (Mulvihill & Baker 2001, Wende 2002). Scoping in India involves three stages:
(a) Project proponent files application in Form-I along with pre-feasibility report and draft ToR
(b) MoEF/SEAC decides ToR for EIA
(c) Intimation of final ToR to project proponent and display in website. This process has a time frame of 60 days.
Certain activities such as building and construction, area development and town planning and highway expansion projects are excluded from scoping.
Review of EIA reports: IA division ensures adequacy and informs the same to project proponent within 30 days.
The decision on adequacy focuses on – completeness of ToR, if concerns of affected party have been taken into account, addresses impacts, mitigation measures, correct and technically sound information and is the information enough for decision making. The ministry then takes 60 days to take a final decision.
Public Participation: It was introduced in EIA Notification of 1997 and falls under the scope of SPCB which can take a maximum of 45 days to complete the proceedings. It has been mandated for Category A and B1 projects, exempting projects concerning national security and defense. Public are consulted during the preparation of draft EIA and EMP review process and new report shall be submitted for review of official in case of concerns addressed by the Public. In developed countries public participation happens during screening and scoping (Wood, 2003) stages as well.
EMP, Mitigation and monitoring of Impacts: The Ministry has provided guidelines for monitoring when the scale of project is likely to impact, or the level of public concern warrants such action. For most projects half-yearly compliance reports are mandated & hence the project proponents concentrate on the pre and post monitoring of the required parameters.
There are no guidelines for EMP and follow up of mitigation measures are largely ineffective. In countries where mitigation measures are being implemented and monitoring of impacts is also being done more effectively the competent authorities are well equipped with technically trained staff and monitoring equipment, for instance in Netherlands, Western Australia and Canada, (Glasson et al., 1999).
Foundation Measures: Focusing on the capacity building measures, there is a need for an independent regulatory body to audit the effectiveness of EIA system and keep decision-makers aware of latest trends and stress for better implementation of existing rules/laws. Presently, reputed universities and research bodies are involved in specialized assignments to aid EIA consultants who lack specific technical expertise, as and when needed.
Structuring a comparison of the Indian setup with international evaluation criteria, the following discussions on the strengths and improvement needed in the EIA scenario in India is presented (Jitendra et al., 2012):
1. Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) which is a process planning tool is not addressed in the Indian legislation. It is required for planning and development of strategic programs and also in assessing Cumulative effects.
2. India has a strong judicial and democratic construct but lacks the strength to impose it and to penalize offenders. The project proponents take advantage of the low fines imposed and conduct EIA as a formality even to the extent of conducting the assessment after start of construction.
3. Strong interference of politically influential people decides the fate of many projects. The political will should be in favour of development but not at the cost of environment.
4. The Indian financial institutions that fund the project do not check for EC unlike as practiced in developed countries. This leads to locking of huge sum of funds and cash crunches to project proponents who cannot start the project for want of EC leading to piling interest on the funds. Undue pressure is put on clearance authorities who find it difficult to suggest alternatives or modifications in project design.
5. In the screening process India follows the threshold approach. However further mention on level of impacts, type of pollutants, size of project and technology used is required (Chen et al., 1999; Wang et al., 2003) as considered in other countries.
6. Scoping is solely in the purview of project proponents who do not address diverse impacts in their ToR. Also stakeholders are not involved in scoping stage leading to a narrow coverage of issues.
7. In India effectiveness of public participation is a vacuum as their involvement is mandated just once and not in the planning & decision making stages, unlike most of the developed nations were more participation is stressed.
8. EAC does the quality review based on the ToR but they lack the checking procedure and don’t follow up with EMP and mitigation measures mentioned in the report. This is mainly due to the lack of enforcement machinery and environmental authorities.
9. Better coordination is required between EIA proponents, consultants, MoEF&CC, CPCB, SPCB, Planners and decision-makers thereby avoiding delays in granting/rejecting EC.
10. Recently the ministry has started registering the EIA consultants and evaluates them against standard evaluation criteria before approving & enlisting them as competent enough to carry out the assessment. Also training bodies like QCI and NABET are providing accreditation for EIA consultants and also training for all officials involved leading to capacity building. This will help in improving the standard of EIA reports.
11. The ministry has also established EIC’s, which are data banks that preserve the baseline data in GIS format. This is functional in many developed EIA practitioner countries.
12. Time and again the departments at provincial level reveal that they are facing a severe shortage of staff with expertise in EIA, specifically dedicated field staff for monitoring of impacts (Jitendra et al., 2012).
7. Projects, Public and Activists
Human race has always lived entwined with the environment and hence protecting it is like standing for your close friend. In India campaigns have been an ongoing process but the largely successful one was recorded in 1973, when the people in Garhwal Himalayas started hugging the trees to avoid them from being cut, it was termed as ‘Chipko Movement’. Around the same year in the southern part of India, Kerala, the Silent Valley Movement was gathering steam against hydroelectric projects in a tropical region.
In the 1990’s with the focus shifting to liberalization the media joined hands with government and portrayed activists as people unwantedly trying to stop growth, example was the Narmadha Bachao Andolan movement by Ms.Medha Patkar who fought along with the tribals to stop a dam construction. The decision was given in favour of the movement after several years of deliberation, by accepting the violations in the rehabilitation process and ordering to provide the same. In the 1980s and 1990s, the pioneers in the environmental movement sought to design and implement (forest, energy, water and transport) policies that would augment economic productivity and human welfare without causing any further stress on the environment. From then until today it’s been ongoing.
The public off late are being more participative in campaigns against projects which will harm the life of the locality, thanks to social media. One such ongoing protest (since 2017) speared by propaganda is at Kathiramangalam, Tamil Nadu against ONGC’s (Oil & Natural Gas Commission) project on Extraction of Methane using fracking of hydrocarbons. The protest started after all the EC was obtained and construction had just begun at project site. Despite strong political pressure the protest has been continuing. Issues like this stress the importance of involving the right public at the right stages for effective EIA.
8. The Way Ahead
It is very hard to strike a balance between – policies that aim for rapid Economic growth, directives that demand for drastic decrease in pollution and people who want speedy recovery of environmental conditions. The EIA/SEA scene in the country is more focused on capacity building for EIA consultants and officials. Timely coordination and enforcements from all the officials is required to make project proponents accountable and to catch them on the hook when they fall off line from established laws.
The MoEF&CC has come up with good initiatives like – funding afforestation campaigns, establishing of the National Green Tribunal which cannot be influenced by the political scene, separate framework for industrial pollution management, framework for sustainable coastal management, national mission for Himalayan studies, separate framework for river conservation etc. Also they offer fellowships, incentives and grants to encourage achievers in the field of environmental protection. All these show their commitment towards preserving the resources of the country.
Opportunities are created by international treaties and bodies like UN which externally force the national government to channelize its growth and mandate policies which are on environment focused development. NGOs and electronic media shall shape & strengthen public concerns and shall also hold the authorities answerable.
Thus, there is a good hope that the EIA/SEA system in India will strengthen and make sustainable environmental progress a reality.