By Riya Mathur, SRCC, Delhi.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) refers to the formal process undertaken to understand the environmental consequences of any developing project or business plan upon its implementation. It is thus an efficient tool to identify projects which can be executed with the best possible combination of economic and environmental considerations. The need for environmental clearance in India arose when the Planning Commission required a comprehensive examination of several upcoming river valley projects around 1976-77. Later the Environmental Protection Act of 1986 made EIA mandatory in the year 1994.

In brief, the process requires the submission of a detailed questionnaire followed by an environment management report. Provided the forms get accepted, the party must attend a public hearing consisting of a panel of experts, which on approval leads to the issuance of a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the Pollution Control Board. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) yields the power to conduct investigations and lay down guidelines to be upheld in the name of ecological impact. It has set up five individual committees to oversee thermal power, industry, river valley, mining and miscellaneous projects taking place all throughout the country.

Analysing the Current Procedure

As detailed and well laid out the procedure seems on paper, the EIA in India is yet to gain effective momentum due to the lags in timing, funding and above all, initiative. Given the multidisciplinary nature of the environment that surrounds us all, the issue starts with innumerable agencies working on the subject with the lack of a single standard consolidated report or organization to make the bounty of data accessible. As for the quality of the existing process, the EIA system is yet to adopt the necessary technological enhancements required to speed up the process and make quality and accurate data available to the masses. The ease of corruption and red tape swaying the approval rates and public hearings makes the journey even more difficult for organizations with a vision but limited means. 

The undue focus on the cost of the project keeps in mind the need to alleviate smaller groups from the vicious trap involving documentation, courts, high fee and time constraints. Given that the aim of the EIA is to address any activity, small or large, residential or commercial, in the way it impacts the environment around it, the screening process needs to be more objective in the way it is carried out. The Preliminary Assessment is crucial in deciding whether an extensive EIA is needed to be done at all, which as many critics have pointed out, involves a large number of teams with no experts in the fields of anthropology or the social sciences, thereby reiterating the narrow minded implementation of the concept.

Perhaps the biggest hole in the road to achieving proper EIA is the way of the current system to intervene in the later stages of decision making. Considering highly developed countries with their robust assessment systems, what sets these systems apart is the efficiency of their internal channels, with the regulatory authorities being active participants ever since the inception of the proposed project. Delving deeper into the procedure, a more time-efficient yet adequate study of the size of the project coupled with alternative solutions needs to be focused on, which further goes on to demand stronger development of R&D in the country. For instance, the Aarey forest controversy saw at least 2000 trees being cut down for the development of the Mumbai metro car depot, with a clear go ahead for bringing down more. India, with all that it suffers from right now which goes on to include lack of proper infrastructure teamed up with high Air Quality Indices (AQIs), shows clear signs of structural abnormalities. It has been widely argued that we cannot afford to continue with reckless deforestation in the name of development. Chopping down of the Aarey forests which have been known as the ‘green lungs of the city’, is a case highly reflective of the ineffectiveness of India’s current EIA procedure. 

EIA Gone Wrong

It becomes important to take note of cases where flawed EIA mechanism has led to hefty ‘anti-environmental’ actions. The construction projects over the Yamuna in Delhi were claimed to be out of the scope of the EIA since ‘railway (urban transportation) projects are not specified in the scheduled list of projects requiring environmental clearance.’ Another case involving gross violations of EIA recommendations is the project of the 2010 Commonwealth Games Village (CGV). The alleged misconduct carried by government organizations also came under fire when it was brought to light that NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute) was forced into producing a report for the courts giving full clearance to the project. Moreover, in the comprehensive analysis by Sinclair and Diduck, a detailed account of how the lack of information and absence of effective institutions went on to alienate a handful of those, who were willing to participate in the EIA process actively, in the case of hydro-development projects in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh has been presented. Factors ranging from deliberate attempts at keeping the public at bay to process deficiencies in the hearings, all that was promised or hoped for was either not made available to those who needed it, or even if it was, it was in no way enough or user-friendly.

Going head to head with countries like the US in our analysis, an important feature is the screening process where the aforementioned involves a wide range of consultants and stakeholders apart from the information provided by the proponent. The recent EIA notification which brought with it a couple of important amendments, relies on the information provided by word of mouth more than it should and the need for consultation is also subject to the approval by the screening committee of experts. Other changes introduced do away with the need for clearance of projects which involve land area up to 50,000 square meters. The easing of processes for sand mining and construction activities along with the added provisions for getting out of public hearings have received slack from a number of environmental activists who claim these amendments will only weaken the EIA. While it is something for a high population country like India to be able to provide a sufficient number of consultants and trainers, at the moment, their numbers are downright inadequate. This very fact goes on to cause additional problems like a mere overview of a couple of indicators rather than looking over all the complexities of the project, the increasing amount of time wasted in the process and the availability of opportunities to be exploited. There is a need to go over and above the half-hearted amendments to include what the people, those who directly face the consequences of any project, have to say. Grievances related to landscapes and the shoddy inter disciplinary capability of the Impact Assessment Agency (IAA) have been picked up as hot debates for reform, but never took center stage. When it comes to judicial interventions, a number of cases wherein High Courts and the Supreme Court have upheld the importance of official environmental clearance over industry requirements (A.P. Pollution Control Board versus Prof. M.V. Nayudu, S.C. 1999) have taken place. However, it has been pointed out that even the judiciary is ill-equipped when it comes to environmental expertise. The need is for higher and more weightage to be given to organisations like the National Green Tribunal (NGT) which can work together to make the existing EIA process more adept and competent within the country.

Talking about the kind of organizations we see fighting for environmental violations, most of the cases are brought in by activists backed by NGOs. Many of these change-driven organisations do not have the financial means required to fight their opponents, a majority of whom are individuals or companies with monetary backing and social standing. Thus, the influence of costs over motive leads the official channel astray as that is where most of these organizations lose out. Furthermore, the unavailability of official documents in vernacular languages, leads to an unnecessary alienation of the local communities who wish to bring about a change by voicing their grievances.

In a nutshell, India’s complex regulations along with an environment for legal non compliance prove to be barriers towards achieving a more sustainable EIA procedure. Given the current status, what the country needs is not an arbitrary one size fits all methodology. It needs a well conceived revision of its EIA mechanism which addresses whatever loopholes have been uncovered in the current system. In order to be at par with its more developed peers, the focus needs to be on a cleaner system with no concentration of power within the hands of a few and a more inclusive, intricate arrangement which restores common faith in the functioning of the environmental governance mechanism. For this, India needs work on a number of fronts, ranging from corruption to administrative overhaul and most importantly, its capability to achieve what any given formal structure within the country was meant to achieve.