Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)

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On January 16th, 2020, the government amended EIA Notification, 2006 to allow projects involving hydrocarbon exploration to be exempted from Environmental Impact Assessment by categorising them under the B2 category. This comes in response to the request from companies like Vedanta Ltd and ONGC to be exempted from public hearing as they are facing public criticism for their proposed projects. Vedanta Ltd proposed to explore hydrocarbon in Cauvery delta and ONGC had applied for permission for hydrocarbon exploration in Nagapattinam and Cuddalore. These proposed projects involve the drilling of wells and the use of environmentally dangerous techniques, making them highly hazardous for both the environment and the public. EIA is already having numerous limitations and drawbacks. Exempting these harmful projects from scrutiny by the public and the competent authorities is making this system even worse.

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What is Environment Impact Assessment (EIA)?

  • Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) is the process of evaluating the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project or development while considering the inter-related socio-economic, cultural and human health impacts, both beneficial and adverse.
  • According to the UN Environment Programme, EIA is a tool used to identify the environment, social and economic impacts of a project before decision-making.
  • Its objective is to predict the environmental impacts at an early stage in the project planning and design, find ways and means to reduce the adverse impacts, shape projects to suit the local environment and present the predictions and options to decision-makers.
  • By using EIA, both environmental and economic benefits can be achieved, like reducing cost and time of the project implementation and design, avoiding treatment/clean-up costs and impacts of laws and regulations.
  • EIA is the basis for the Environment clearance. Environment Clearance is the procedure of obtaining the government’s permission for installing or modifying certain projects that can cause high environmental pollution.

How is the EIA undertaken?

Generally, the Environment Impact Assessment involves the following stages:

  • Screening: The screening is the first and simplest step in the EIA procedure. Screening helps to clear those types of projects from the experience, is not likely to cause significant environmental problems. This may take one of the following forms:
  • Measurements using simple criteria like size or location
  • Comparing the proposal with a list of projects that rarely need an EIA (like schools) or those that definitely requires one (like coal mines).
  • Estimation of general impacts like an increase in infrastructure needs and comparing these impacts against set thresholds.
  • Doing complex analyses using readily available data.
  • Preliminary Assessment: If the project does not clear the screening stage, the developer must undertake the preliminary assessment. This involves adequate research, review available data, and expert advice to identify the significant impacts of the project on the local environment, predict the extent of the impacts and briefly evaluate their importance to decision-makers. The preliminary assessment can be used to aid early project planning (for example, to narrow down the discussion of possible sites) and it can help warn about the serious environmental problems that may arise due to the project.
  • EIA team: After the preliminary assessment is reviewed and a competent authority deems that a full EIA is needed, the project developer must prepare an EIA report by commissioning EIA study team.
  • Scoping: The first task of the EIA study team is scoping the EIA. The aim is to ensure that the study addresses all important issues and concerns that may arise because of the project. During this stage, the study team selects primary impact for the EIA to focus on depending based on magnitude, geographical extent, significance to decision-makers or because the area is locally special because of soil erosion, presence of endangered species, or a nearby historic site or an eco-sensitive area.
  • Main EIA: The EIA tries to assess
  • Impact of the project
  • The extent of the project’s impact
  • Whether the project’s impact matter or not
  • Solution for the impact
  • Identification: This stage involves the assessment of the impact of the project. If the preliminary assessment has been done, it will have broadly assessed the effects of the project. Also, scoping will have focused on identifying the most important issues of the decision-makers. Taking these into deliberation, the full EIA study will formally identify these findings and assess them in detail. Some of the methods used during this stage include:
  • Compile a list of key impacts like changes in air quality, noise levels, wildlife habitats, social and cultural systems, landscapes etc.
  • Naming of all sources of impacts like smoke emissions, water consumption, construction etc. and listing of possible receptors in the environment like crops, communities using the same source of water for drinking etc., by surveying existing environment and consulting with interested parties.
  • Prediction: This stage involves analysing the extent of the impact. This is done by scientifically studying cause and effects and their secondary and synergetic impact on the environment and the local community. The prediction involves the use of biological, socioeconomic and anthropological data techniques. All prediction techniques by their nature, involve some degree of uncertainty.
  • Evaluation: This phase analyses whether the impact matter or not. This stage involves the evaluation of the predicted adverse impacts to determine whether they are significant enough to warrant mitigation. This can be done through:
  • Comparison with laws, regulations or accepted standards
  • Consultation with the relevant decision-makers
  • Reference to pre-set criteria like protected sites, species, etc.
  • Acceptability to the local community or the general public
  • Mitigation: In this phase, the study team formally analyses mitigation. Comprehensive measures are proposed to prevent, reduce, solve or compensate individual adverse impact that was evaluated to be significant. Possible mitigations must be analysed and an action plan must be put forth.
  • EIA report: This is the final step in the EIA process. In this stage, the EIA team will provide the necessary answers to the decision-makers regarding the project. The EIA report consists of:
  • Comprehensive data related to the findings of the EIA process
  • Prediction of impacts based on experience and mathematical modeling
  • Impact versus net cost-benefit
  • Preparation of environmental management plans to mitigate the adverse impacts
  • Quantitative assessment of the cost of monitoring the plan and mitigation measures

What are the notable features of the 2006 amendment to EIA Notification?

  • EIA notification, 2006 has decentralised the environmental clearance projects by classifying the developmental projects into two categories:
  • Category A (national level appraisal): Projects under this category are appraised at the national level by the Impact Assessment Agency (IAA) and Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC).
  • Category B (state-level appraisal): Projects under this category are appraised at the state level. The State Level Environmental Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) and State Level Expert Appraisal Committee (SEAC) are involved in providing clearance to these projects.
  • After the implementation of the 2006 notification, EIA consists of four stages:
  • Screening
  • Scoping
  • Public hearing
  • Appraisal
  • Projects under Category A mandatorily require environmental clearance and thus, they do not undergo the screening process.
  • Projects under category B undergo screening projects. These projects are further classified into:
  • Category B (EIA is mandatory)
  • Category B2 (don’t require EIA)

What are the recent changes made in the EIA notification, 2006?

  • To ensure favourable procedure for companies like Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Vedanta Ltd, the Centre has exempted hydrocarbon exploration activities from the rigorous EIA and public hearing.
  • Earlier, these companies had requested an exemption from public hearings to projects that involve the exploration of hydrocarbons in the Cauvery delta. This project had previously faced scathing criticism and protests from the public.
  • These proposed projects involve the drilling of wells and the use of environmentally dangerous techniques like seismic testing and fracking.

Consequences:

  • Previously, under the EIA Notification, 2006, projects that involve an exploration of hydrocarbon reserves was listed under category A, mandating an EIA report, public hearing and clearance from the MoEF&CC.
  • This procedure, even when requiring EIA report and public hearing, has limitations in addressing the environmental impacts.
  • The current amendment categorises oil and gas exploration activities under B2 activity, a category reserved for small-scale projects where the spatial extent of potential impacts on human health and environment is very low.
  • The amendment prevents assessment of environmental impacts, won’t allow inclusion environmental safeguards and public hearing for these projects.
  • Environmental clearance for these projects will be given by the state environment impact authority.
  • However, the states also have even worse track records in enforcing compliance than the centre.
  • For example, in Tamil Nadu, none of the hydrocarbon production wells operated by ONGC has valid consent to operate from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.
  • This decision by the Centre is not because of the anticipated impacts or for decentralising the procedure. Instead, it is the government’s prioritisation of commercial interest over the communities’ health and environmental conservation.

How is environment clearance given?

  • The Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) is the nodal agency for environmental clearances.
  • It is in charge of setting up the Expert Appraisal Committee, which will scrutinise the proposed project based on the data available within the EIA report.
  • The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) exists at the centre as well as state levels (State Expert Appraisal Committee) to advise the government on the environmental clearance of development projects.
  • EAC/SEAC are involved in all stages mandated under EIA notification, 2006, except public hearing.
  • When necessary, the MoEF&CC may consult with investors and experts on certain issues.
  • After evaluating all the aspects of the proposed project, the environmental clearance is given with the implementation of certain environmental safeguards.
  • For projects that require both environmental clearance and approval under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, proposals for both should be given at the same time to the concerned divisions under MoEF&CC so that the processing is done simultaneously for providing clearance or for rejecting the project.
  • If the project proponents have given the complete information, the decision will be taken within 90 days.
  • If the environmental clearance is granted, it shall be valid for five years for commencement of the construction or operation of the project.
  • Six regional offices under the MoEF&CC in Shillong, Bhubaneshwar, Chandigarh, Bengaluru, Lucknow and Bhopal are involved in the monitoring of cleared projects.

What are the advantages of EIA?

  • It decreases the cost and time taken to implement and design the project.
  • It reduces the cost of treatment/clean-up and impacts of laws and regulations on the projects.
  • It provides dependable solutions to make projects eco-friendly.
  • Environment protection is prioritised in project design, implementation and operation.
  • It creates a balance between environmental conservation and economic development
  • Comprehensive analysis of the issues that may arise due to the projects that may impact either the economy or the environment
  • It aims for sustainable economic growth
  • It makes sure that the developmental projects are not at the cost of the environment
  • Mitigation strategies are part of the EIA, ensuring that the projects are implemented through innovative solutions that minimise the project’s adverse impact on the environment.

What are the drawbacks of EIA?

There are several drawbacks to India’s Environmental Impact Assessment system. They are as follows:

Screening:

  • Even though some of the industrial set up does not need EIA as per the legal norms, they might involve certain technology or processes, which can be harmful to the environment.
  • This may result in those industries harming the environment and public health.
  • Currently, industries that are investing below Rs.100 crore need not seek EIA clearance.
  • Exempting these industries from the EIA requirement based on the investment value of specific projects is not acceptable as there is no proof that environmental impacts are always inconsequential for projects under a given value.

Scoping:

  • Indian system lacks exhaustive ecological and socio-economic indicators for assessing impact.
  • Public comments are not considered at the early stage, which often leads to conflicts at the later stage of project clearance.

Identification:

  • India lacks reliable data to identify the impact caused by these projects.
  • The data collectors do not give importance to the knowledge of the locals.
  • The credibility of the primary data collected is uncertain.

Mitigation:

  • Details of the effectiveness and implementation of the mitigation methods are often not provided.
  • Often, and more so for strategic industries like nuclear energy projects, most of the information related to the project is kept confidential for political and administrative reasons.
  • Emergency preparedness plans not discussed with sufficient details and the information is not provided to the public.

Low-quality EIA reports:

  • One of the major concerns with the environmental clearance process is the quality of the EIA report that are used during the assessment.
  • These reports are usually incomplete and are provided with false data.
  • They ignore several aspects while carrying out assessment and significant information is found to be overlooked.
  • Many EIA reports are “Rapid EIA”, which are based on data that is collected only for a single season that is not during monsoon season. The other option is “comprehensive EIA” that requires data from all four seasons.
  • The Rapid EIA is not adequate to determine whether environmental clearance should be granted or not.
  • Furthermore, it should be noted that it is the responsibility of project proponent to commission the preparation of the EIA for its project.
  • The EIA is funded by an agency or an individual whose primary interest is to procure the clearance for the proposed project, making it unlikely to be unbiased.
  • It was also found that the consultancy, which is working in a specific project has not specialisation in the concerned subject.
  • The EIA document in itself is so bulky and technical. This makes it difficult for the decision-makers to assess the project comprehensively without the necessary expert labour force, which India lacks currently.
  • There were also cases of fraudulent EIA studies that consisted of erroneous data. This is because of the lack of a centralised baseline data bank, where such data can be crosschecked.
  • India also does not have certification for EIA consultants. Therefore, any such consultant with a track record of fraudulent cases cannot be held accountable for discrepancies.

Public Hearing:

  • The public hearing is an important component of EIA.
  • However, public participation is a difficult exercise if it leads to conflict between government policies and the public.
  • The public hearing is not just an administrative exercise that involves a hearing that seeks to meet the requirements of the legislation. It also aims to make the project more transparent so that society is aware that its interests are not compromised.
  • However, these public hearings have not helped because most of the projects are undertaken in resource-rich tribal and rural areas where people lack awareness and knowledge, making them vulnerable to be lured by the prospects of money and employment opportunities.
  • Furthermore, it is difficult to provide awareness to the locals about the true nature and impact of the project and getting them to oppose and question the concerned issues.
  • Also, people are informed just a few days before the stipulated date of public hearing and
  • The owners of the project make sure that people’s opinions are suppressed during the public hearing.
  • Additionally, the State Pollution Control Board, which is responsible for conducting a public hearing, is not equipped with the requisite labour or infrastructure.
  • The notification also does not provide necessary guidelines for conducting a public hearing and the expenses involved while conducting these public hearing is also not specified in the notification.
  • The rarely available documents are not at the public domain on time.
  • The notification prescribes several places where one can access these documents but does not specify who is responsible for ensuring that the document is made available on time at that location.
  • It should be noted that the recommendations of the public hearing panel are only advisory and it is not mandatory for the impact assessment agency to even consider these while granting the environmental clearance.

Environmental Clearance:

  • For projects that need site clearance, it is often assumed by the project proponents that once the site clearance is granted, the environmental clearance will follow.
  • This leads to many project proponents beginning their construction work before the environmental clearance is granted, despite government specifications.
  • Also, when the environmental clearance is given despite the public objection, the reasons for the same is not provided.
  • There are very few ways to get information regarding the project clearances.
  • Those who have access to the internet, the ministry’s website provides information to a certain extent.
  • However, often the information on the website is updated long after the decision is taken.
  • For those communities that have little to no access to the internet, this information is not accessible.
  • Making information available immediately after the decision regarding the clearance is taken is vital so that it is challenged before the concerned authority.
  • The environment clearance process after the public hearing is not transparent and the rationale behind the decision is not accessible to the public.
  • These clearances often do not address the concerns that were posed during the public hearing.

Applicability:

  • Several exempted projects cause a significant impact on the environment. This may be because they are not listed in category A or B or their investment is less than what is provided in the notification.
  • Several defense-related projects like road and railways constructions are explicitly exempted in the notification.
  • These projects may obtain temporary working permission for a maximum of two years until it gets environmental clearance.

Monitoring and compliance:

  • Projects are given clearances based on certain conditions, which the project authority should comply with.
  • This means that certain conditions will be put forth for the clearance of the projects.
  • The regional offices of the MoEF&CC are to monitor the compliance of these conditions and prepare reports.
  • However, the local population does not have access to the information about the conditions and they are not part of the monitoring.
  • It is unknown whether the project authorities are monitoring the compliance and reflecting the reality on their reports.
  • Access to these compliance reports is only a subject of public interest.
  • The difficulty in accessing these reports hurt the rights of people who are against these projects.

Lack of expertise:

  • It was found that the team formed for creating EIA report lack expertise in various fields of environmental science, wildlife, anthropology, social science etc.
  • Thus, they are not able to comprehend the impact of the projects on the environment and society.
  • It is vital to ensuring capacity building for government agencies, communities, NGOs and the judiciary concerning the implementation of the existing EIA notification.
  • This is because even when there are provisions to allow people to participate or monitor, the lack of information and capacity is hindering the implementation.

What can be done to improve EIA?

  • Independent Environment Impact Assessment Authority that is headed by a judicial officer and comprising of representatives from communities and specialist groups is a need of the hour. Such a body should be independent of the ministry and its decision should be binding on the MoEF&CC.
  • Creation of an information desk within the MoEF&CC, which provides information regarding the project clearance. This desk should provide the information as soon as possible either through courier or through the internet
  • Environmental risk assessment: A flexible and dynamic assessment of direct and indirect environmental impacts must be explored. As a part of this process, meeting the local population and understanding their take on the project’s implications must be made mandatory.
  • Applicability of EIA notification: The EIA notifications, including a public hearing, must be enforced, without exemption, to those projects that are likely to be significantly alternate ecosystems like lakes, rivers, wetlands, forests, grasslands, coastal and maritime ecosystems, etc., and go through the process of environmental clearances.
  • No industrial activities, big or small, must be permitted in ecologically sensitive areas. Only developmental activities, which do not alter or destroy the basic ecological characteristics of such areas, should be allowed. Such projects must be explicitly listed out by the government for effective implementation.
  • The focus of the EIA must shift from utilisation and exploitation of natural resources to conservation of the natural resources. Many EIA reports are justifying the need for the project, shifting the focus of the EIA from a process that provides insights into the validity and desirability of the projects to one that finds justification for the desirability of the projects.
  • Addressing ineffective environmental impact assessment: The EIA reports are extremely inadequate when it comes to the assessment of the biological and social aspects of the project and its consequences. This should be addressed through specific guidelines and if necessary through amendments to the EIA notification.
  • All EIA reports must clearly state the adverse impacts of the proposed projects. This should be a separate chapter and not hidden within the technical details. Also, this must be made publically available so that there is accountability by all the parties involved.
  • EIA should contain details of the assessment process like:
  • Full information about parties involved in assessment, including sub-consultants so that there is no scope for anonymity and parties can be held accountable for their findings and recommendations.
  • Full reference to all the information available so that they can be independently verified.
  • Comprehensive EIA must be mandatory as the rapid assessment is inadequate to understand the full impact of the proposed project.
  • Independent assessment: The preparation of EIA must be independent of the project proponent. A central fund can be created for the EIA, which contain fee deposited by project proponents while seeking an EIA for their project. The assessment can be undertaken by independent, competent and credible agencies that are listed out and maintained by the government. Additionally, EIA consultants who are making false reports must be blacklisted. A national-level accreditation to environment consultancy must be adopted.
  • A public hearing should be strictly implemented for all projects that are likely to cause environmental and social impacts. Three stages can be adopted for the public hearing:
  • The preliminary hearing requires an explanation of the process of conducting the assessment so that the scope of the assessment can be decided by the public.
  • The second stage should focus on the purpose of presenting and discussing all aspects of the assessment findings in a simplified way while focusing on the project’s adverse impacts, costs, benefits and rehabilitation aspects.
  • The third hearing can be held after a week so that people are given time to analyse the information pertaining to the project. All opinions must be recorded and put forth for the final stage of the project clearance.
  • Public consent from the local communities must be made mandatory before granting environmental clearance. This consent must be from a full general body, not from the head of the community.
  • Executive committees should consist of experts from various reputed stakeholder groups. The selection process for these committees should be transparent, and their meetings and decisions must be made public.
  • Local communities should be brought into the formal monitoring and reporting of project compliance that is currently done by the regional offices of the MoEF&CC. This would enable the transparency, efficiency, accountability and regularity of the monitoring process.
  • The scope of the National Environment Appellate Authority must be expanded to deal with more than just challenging environmental clearance of projects. Citizens should have access to the authority for redressal of all violation of the EIA notifications as well as issues related to non-compliance.
  • Capacity building: NGOs, civil society groups and local communities must be trained so that they can use the EIA notifications towards better decision making on projects that can affect their local environment and livelihoods.

Conclusion:

India’s EIA system is having numerous drawbacks and limitations, making it almost useless in the current scenario. The majority of project proponents are exploiting the loopholes that exist within this system and the government’s reluctance to address this issue due to its economic interests is straining both the environment and the local communities. Progressive steps must be taken at the ground level to make environment clearance efficient, reliable and mandatory as the current system cannot ensure sustainable and inclusive economic progress.

Practice questions for mains:

The recent amendment in EIA Notification, 2006 to exempt hydrocarbon exploration projects exposes the government’s priority of corporate interests over the environment and public welfare. Elucidate.

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