The Good: Introduction and Initial Application of EIA

The concept of Environmental Impact Assessment was introduced in the United States for the first time in 1969. Since then, countless countries and even international organisations have introduced their version of the same too.

As per the Centre for Science and Environment, “Environment Impact Assessment or EIA can be defined as the study to predict the effect of a proposed activity/project on the environment. 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.”

So essentially speaking EIA comprises of various tests at different stages in order to understand the possible impact a proposed industry, building or any other man made project will have on the various environmental aspects in the area it is proposed in. Depending on the background of the project different measure and restrictions are implemented. For example; the criterion for a nuclear power project will not be similar to that of a new airport.

India first Introduced EIA sometime between 1967-1977 when it had shifted focus on river valley projects, and the Planning Commission directed the Department of Science and Environment to analyse these projects in terms of their environmental impact.

Since then, our country has made considerable strides in terms of the legislature introduced by emphasising the protection and restoration of the environment as an integral aspect of governance.

In 1986 India officially introduced EIA under the ‘Notification on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of developmental projects,1994 under the provisions of Environment Protection Act, 1986.’

Since the formal notification in 1994, there have been various amendments to the notification, with the last major one being in 2006. Ultimately after that, the EIA was mandatory for over 40 sectors and projects worth Rs. 5o crore or more.

Some of those sectors include:

  • Nuclear power projects and processing of nuclear fuel
  • Mining of minerals including Opencast/Underground mining
  • Offshore and onshore oil and gas exploration, development & production
  • Offshore and onshore oil and gas exploration, development & production
  • River Valley, Hydel, Drainage and Irrigation projects
  • Isolated storage & handling of Hazardous chemicals (As per threshold planning quantity indicated in column 3 of Schedule 2 & 3 of MSIHC Rules 1989 amended 2000)

Overall on paper, it seems like a well-made and highly required piece of legislation, it even gave states the ever-required autonomy by giving them the ability to have the final say in giving clearance to these projects.

The Bad: Loopholes and Flaws in EIA(2006)

Like most legislatures in India, the major problem with EIA is its implementation. There has been a shift from the public domain towards the private, which makes obtaining clearance a much easier task than it should be as making the consultation process became optional. Before 2006 consultants and committees were supposed to look through and understand the possible impact of the proposition. However, post-2006 the proposer themselves could submit the plan and gain clearance on the grounds of what they submit, giving them leeway to do as they please.

There is a severe lack of trained EIA consultants from the government’s end. Therefore, the party that requires clearance can hire whom they want to do the same, making it a financial matter for them rather than an environmental one. The government agency responsible for overlooking EIA is the Impact Assessment Agency(IAA) it has barely been given any control, and lack of resources, including human capital, make it difficult to take EIA seriously.

The Indian Parliament recently passed The Mineral Laws (Amendment) Act, 2020 (Amendment) in January 2020. Being the second-largest coal producer after China, the current government wants to increase the participation of private players in the coal mining sector. The passing of the same stands in stark contrast to the country’s mission to shift to renewables, with the post-COVID-19 economy providing a huge opportunity to do so for economic and employment purposes. Nevertheless, if the trend is still followed, then we are going to be a large coal-dependent country for a long time. In a country where illegal “rat-hole “coal mining is a massive epidemic and a dangerous one (despite the NGT imposed ban in 2014) for both the environment and people, this news with a mostly defunct EIA strategy does not bode well.

                                                                                                          Source: CEA(2018)

To further drive the nail in the coffin, the LG Polymers plant in Vizag, where the recent tragic gas leak took place, did not have proper and updated EIA clearance despite the fact the chemical ‘styrene’ was a dangerous component. The plant was established allegedly in the pre-EIA era and later got clearance for existing functions but further added six minor operations which were not part of the plan that did get clearance.

Both the instances mentioned above and impact of the 2006 amendments show that EIA in India is a mismanaged and terribly applied law which requires serious updates to truly protect the environment and fulfil the object of the legislation

The Ugly: The Draft EIA Notification 2020

One would think that the current. The government have learnt from the past and even the current climate happenings in the world and our country. Sadly, that is not the case, and this draft amendment aims to reduce and further dilute the existing EIA mandate, which is already a poorly applied law.

The already minimum public involvement will be further minimised, and the number of days for public consultation reduced from 30 to 20 to clear projects faster. It further proposes bypassing all the stages involved (as showcased in the diagram above) and shifting projects from one category. To another, so a project that would be examined with utmost care is exempt from certain stages of the process, thereby possibly leading to a severe and detrimental impact on the population and environment. By allowing for post-facto approvals for projects which violated norms in the first place, the Environment Ministry is setting the projects up for disaster.

“The backbone of environment clearance rules is monitoring the conditions on which projects are cleared and ensuring compliance. However, here the ministry is outrightly trusting the industries whose track record does not inspire much confidence. This proposed EIA notification has no focus on ensuring compliance and monitoring of projects while it heavily relies on self-certification by the industry,” said Vikrant Tongad.

Nevertheless, all hope is not gone, and the ministry of environment after public backlash extended the date for the final decision till 30 June 2020. So as responsible citizens, it is a plea in the public interest that you mail the issues and problems you have with the new notification on the following e-mail address: eia2020-moefcc@gov.in.

Image from Forbes

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