In recent times, the walk between climate change adaptation and development has been cautionary and an act of fine balance. Environmental Impact Assessment, abbreviated as EIA, has been ‘that’ fine balance to predict and mitigate the impacts of developmental processes on natural, social and economic order. The studied impacts, beneficial or detrimental, must be factored in while designing a project, and enable the plan, policy or project to move forward as proposed.
In 1979, Munn gave a broad definition of EIA, which is, “to identify and predict the impact on the environment and on man’s health and well-being of legislative proposals, policies, program, projects and operational procedures, and to interpret and communicate information about the impacts”. This makes the EIA a multidisciplinary and systematic approach, which gives an impetus to examine the consequences of developmental actions having a direct or an indirect bearing on the socio-economics of environment.
It was in the US where the EIA was mandated as a regulatory procedure in the early 1970s through National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 1969. Subsequently, similar legal mandates were enacted in developed countries including Australia, Canada and New Zealand. A few developing countries including Columbia and Philippines also stepped up to add the mandate in their legal frameworks. In India, the EIA was first conducted by Department of Science and Technology in 1977-78 to study the impact of river valley projects.
Later, a varied range of projects such as thermal power, mining, infrastructure were brought into examination under the EIA. Finally, it became a mandatory process for all developmental activities under the Environmental Protection Act of 1986. The notification issued by the Government of Indian in 1994 enlisted 30 projects that must seek environmental clearances before implementation.
In 2006, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) brought out a legislation that necessitated large scale developmental activities and certain small scale (electroplating, foundry, etc.) to undergo environmental clearance. Unlike the notification of 1994, it became the responsibility of State governments and not the Central government to clear projects depending on their scale and capacity.
A fairly-conducted EIA considerably reduces conflicts by promoting community participation and informing decision makers. It also helps in laying the base for environmentally-sound projects. An EIA aims to fulfill the following three core principles:
Integrity — The EIA process should be fair, objective, unbiased and balanced;
Utility — The EIA should provide balanced and credible information for decision-making, and
Sustainability — The EIA should result in environmental safeguards.
Findings of the EIA are then incorporated at the stage of project design, and help facilitating finding alternatives and making necessary changes. This practice helps project management committees in assessing the negative impacts and planning remedial measures.
As a first step, the project proponent is required to obtain a site approval from the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB). A clearance from the Central government is also obtained if the site falls in a restricted forest land, coastal zone or any other ecologically sensitive area. Then, the EIA study is conducted, the report of which is submitted to the SPCB.
An advertisement in the newspaper calls upon for public hearing conducted by the SPCB in order to issue a No Objection Certificate. The conditions put forth to carry out the project range from general to specific, depending from case to case. Structurally, the EIA may differ from country to country, but there is a basic structure of the process that is usually followed everywhere.
The eight steps of the EIA process are: screening, scoping, impact analysis, mitigation, reporting, review of EIA, decision-making and post monitoring.
The MOEFCC has recently proposed a revised set of notification in its draft EIA notification 2020. The draft proposes to update the EIA of 2006. The draft is still in the public domain for scrutiny by various stakeholders. The notification has already raised many debates as it is being seen as dilution of environmental principles.
One of the most criticised issues is the proposed provision for post facto approvals. Hon’ble Supreme Court of India has disapproved granting of post facto approvals in its judgment made a couple of years ago. The Court went on to say that the grant of an ex post facto environmental clearance would be detrimental to the environment and could lead to its irreparable degradation.
In a recent gas leak accident that occurred in Vizag on 7th May 2020, hundreds of lives were risked and about 11 succumbed to death on exposure to styrene gas. LG Polymers India, the company responsible for the gas leak, was found to be operating without an environmental clearance.
According to the EIA draft notification 2020 a company, like LG Polymers India, that has violated environmental laws can later seek approval and regularise its state of affairs as usual. Not only this, many on-going projects that can be rendered as a violation of environmental laws now stand a chance to get a clearance.
The process of EIA that makes it participatory and democratic is that of public hearing, the part that would face a set back if the time for public consultation is cut short from 30 days to 20 by the draft notification. It also proposes to complete the public hearing process in 40 days, compared to 45 days under the earlier notification.
We already have a history of projects that have led to a large number of displacements because of wrongful acquisition of law. Such provisions in the draft notification, if it becomes a policy, would certainly threaten the public participatory process and the three core principles of EIA.
For projects concerning defence, security and other strategic considerations as determined by the government, will now be termed as ‘strategic projects’ and would be exempted from public consultation, the details of which may not be kept in the public domain. Such genuine projects of national importance are reasonable if the provision is not misused by the construction lobby to evade scrutiny.
Environment and Economy (development) has always been at the centre of partisan debate across the world ever since the landmark UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. India has also experienced this debate over the years. It is a question of striking a balance between two extreme but influential views. The EIA process, if diluted, will further snuff the life of Environmental Protection Laws in the country.