As the name suggests, EIA is supposed to assess the environmental impact of development projects, to minimize the adverse effects of development on the environment. As per the International Association for Impact Assessment, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is “the process of identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social, and other relevant effects of development proposals before major decisions being taken and commitments made”. The significance of EIA also lies in the fact that public consultation is an important aspect of the assessment decision. This means that while an expert committee is to make the final decision about the impact of a project or activity, the people who are directly affected by the said project, also get to present their opinions and concerns regarding the same, which must be taken into consideration before concluding the EIA proceedings for a project.
EIA as an idea was first introduced in India in 1977-1978 but it was mandated only 1994, after it was added as a requirement under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. It has been argued that EIA notification of 2006 had already diluted some of the effective provisions under EIA 1994 by making Pollution Control Boards responsible for conducting a public hearing, which was earlier the responsibility of the proponents of the project. The 2006 notification also stated that if public consultation is not conducive, the concerned EIA could be forgone. Earlier this year, the government redrafted the EIA notification once again, claiming to provide an essential and holistic approach to developmental projects keeping in mind the aspects of socio-economics, cultural attachments and human health. However, the new provisions have been criticized on account of violating the entire point of an EIA procedure.
The new draft 2020, allows for two types of project clearance: Prior environmental clearance (EC) with Expert Committee Appraisal (EAC) and environmental permission (EP) without the approval of the EAC. The 2006 provisions had divided projects into National Level (Category A) and State level (Category B) for determining the EIA authority. The 2020 draft includes more sectors under category B, further branching it into B1 and B2 categories most of which have been predetermined under the draft as opposed to the earlier procedure of categorizing projects on a case to case basis. Moreover, a Technical Expert Committee has been established whose sole function is to categorize and realign various projects to fall under either of the three categories. Under the new draft, projects listed under the B2 category are to be exempted from the specification of EIA and can be carried out without supervision or public consultation. This list of projects includes, but is not limited to offshore and onshore oil, gas exploration, irrigation projects, hydroelectric projects, MSME activities, inland waterways, roadway expansion, projects concerning national security and defense; all of which previously required screening by the EACs. Such blanket exemption for predetermined categories has raised concerns amongst environmentalists and policy experts, as the reasoning behind expanding the list has not been specified nor has the basis of their selection been described. The government should clarify as to how and why some projects are categorized under B2 for complete exemption and what foolproof formula will quantify the loss of ecology and lives due to such developmental projects or activities.
The B2 Category provides an easy escape route for the authorities as no complaints from the public or the civil society will be entertained against these projects. One such recent project is Goa’s NH-4A expansion where activists have filed a PIL challenging the questionable manner of allowing the expansion plan without any prior EC in this case. But, under the new provisions, such complaints by interest groups will not be permissible. Also, whether or not the damages after the commencement of the B2 Category Project will be accounted for, if any, is unaddressed. Merely publishing the notices and minutes of meetings between the government, project proponent and the Expert Appraisal Committee in newspapers is not enough. The concerned community representatives should also be accommodated in such meetings to ensure the democratic nature of policy undertakings; failure of which should mean cancellation of the project clearance.
The 2020 draft also allows for a post-facto clearance of projects, a provision that has never before been allowed for assessing the environmental impact of any project or activity. This has been understood as a clear indication for prioritizing the economic contributions made by a project, thereby overlooking its adverse environmental impact, as long as there is scope to attain a clearance later despite the earlier adverse environmental impact. This reflects the belief that monetary compensation can reverse the environmental damage caused, which is a dangerous perception given the long term impact of environmental violations. For example, a petition opposing the Chardham Highway Project in Uttarakhand illustrated the long term impact of construction projects in fragile ecological zones of the Himalayas and how the increased frequency of flash floods, lake slides, and glacial lake bursts is an outcome of such activities.
The styrene gas leak in LG Polymers plant at Visakhapatnam and a huge blast of a gas well rocked a village near Tinsukia town of Assam in Baghjan, which endangered the fringes of the biodiversity haven of Dibru Saikhowa National Park illustrated the risks associated with chemical and gas plants. Against the backdrop of these recent catastrophes, several questions and critiques have been raised against the EIA 2020 notification. Under the new rules, since oil and gas exploration are categorized at the B2 level, the onus to give ECs lies with the State appointed EACs. This could lead to a misuse of assessment as any projects titled under defense and national security will get a free pass to penetrate in ecologically sensitive parts of the country. Moreover, the notification doesn’t clearly state how or what projects fall under “strategic consideration”. Additionally, with the project expansion provisions modified, project expansions for less than 50 percent will require neither EIA studies nor public hearings, which once again dismisses the need for prior project assessments in the name of development.
Another controversial provision under the 2020 notification is that the notice period for a public hearing has been reduced from 30 days to 20 days, making it just a formality and not a necessity. This will make public consultation an even more difficult process as the EIA reports are already not available in regional languages, which therefore runs the risk of further diluting the opinions of tribals, fishers, and other affected communities. The provisions further smoothen the supervision process by requiring only one compliance report in a year by the project proponents, unlike the earlier requirement where 2 reports in a year were mandatory. Reducing such regulatory checks will mean that irreversible environmental consequences of the projects go unnoticed. It is argued that compliance reports should be presented by the project proponents every quarter to oversee whether the terms on which permission was granted are followed or not and ensure timely intervention in case of non-compliance.
The idea of EIA has always been to quantify the worth of a development project as per its impact on the environment and the ecology. To that end, the role of local communities has been paramount, as assessing the long term impacts of a project cannot be possible without involving individuals who will experience it the most closely. Thus what made EIA effective so far, was the power of the people to question, oppose, and report a project violative of environmental protection principles. However, if the new EIA notification is approved in its present form, the goal of impact assessment will barely be met, as public participation has largely been sidelined. Undermining people’s role in preserving the environment can prove to be dangerous, even if such development is supposed to achieve economic milestones. If we aren’t able to protect our forests, coasts, and riverbeds from the adverse effects of mining, extraction, and construction projects, the development will not bear any long-lasting fruits as no one would be able to outlive the spiral of a long term environmental disaster. As sustainable development is not an option but a necessity now more than ever, we need to ensure that processes like the EIA are further strengthened rather than weakened for the elusive goal of development.