Prof. V.P. Gupta
Rau’s IAS Study Circle, New Delhi –Bengaluru
This article caters to the Environment section of
General Studies-Paper III and for Essay Paper in
UPSC Main Examination
Economic development versus environmental sustainability has been at the centre of debate in the modern times. Some argue that for developing countries like India, economic development should be the priority. However, focusing only on economic development might lead to generation of negative externalities like pollution, deforestation and overexploitation of resources. Therefore, the need of the hour is to ensure a rapid economic growth which takes into account the question of environmental sustainability also.
To make the development environmentally sustainable, an important tool is to assess the environmental impact of all development projects. So, let us understand various aspects of Environment Impact Assessment.
What is Environment Impact Assessment (EIA)?
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a process of evaluating the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project or development, taking into account inter-related socio-economic, cultural and human-health impacts, both beneficial and adverse. Thus, it also takes into account the social, cultural and health related impacts besides the environmental costs.
UNEP defines Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as a tool used to identify the environmental, social and economic impacts of a project prior to decision-making.
It aims to predict environmental impacts at an early stage in project planning and design, find ways and means to reduce 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, such as reduced costs and time of project implementation and design, avoided treatment/clean-up costs and impacts of laws and regulations.
Evolution of EIA
Ø EIA as a mandatory regulatory procedure originated in the early 1970s, with the implementation of the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) 1969 in the US.
Ø A large part of the initial development took place in a few high-income countries, like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (1973-74).
Ø However, there were some developing countries as well, which introduced EIA relatively early—Colombia (1974), Philippines (1978).
Ø The EIA process really took off after the mid-1980s. In 1989, the World Bank adopted EIA for major development projects, in which a borrower country had to undertake an EIA under the Bank’s supervision.
Evolution of EIA in India
Ø It started in 1976-77, when the Planning Commission asked the Department of Science and Technology to examine the river-valley projects from an environmental angle.
Ø This was subsequently extended to cover those projects, which required the approval of the Public Investment Board.
Ø Till 1994, environmental clearance from the Central Government was an administrative decision and lacked legislative support.
Ø The Government of India, under the Environmental (Protection) Act 1986, promulgated an EIA notification making Environmental Clearance (EC) mandatory for expansion or modernisation of any activity or for setting up new projects listed in Schedule 1 of the notification.
Ø The MoEFCC notified new EIA legislation in September 2006.
Ø The notification makes it mandatory for various projects to get environmental clearance.
Ø However, unlike the EIA Notification of 1994, the new legislation has put the onus of clearing projects on the state government depending on the size/capacity of the project.
Stages of EIA
a) Screening todetermine which projects or developments require a full or partial impact assessment study;
b) Scoping to identify which potential impacts are relevant to assess (based on legislative requirements, international conventions, expert knowledge and public involvement), to identify alternative solutions that avoid, mitigate or compensate adverse impacts on biodiversity (including the option of not proceeding with the development, finding alternative designs or sites which avoid the impacts, incorporating safeguards in the design of the project, or providing compensation for adverse impacts), and finally to derive terms of reference for the impact assessment;
c) Assessment and evaluation of impacts and development of alternatives, to predict and identify the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project or development, including the detailed elaboration of alternatives;
d) Reporting the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or EIA report, including an Environmental Management Plan (EMP), and a non-technical summary for the general audience.
e) Review of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), based on the terms of reference (scoping) and public (including authority) participation.
f) Decision-making on whether to approve the project or not, and under what conditions; and
g) Monitoring, compliance, enforcement and environmental auditing. Monitor whether the predicted impacts and proposed mitigation measures occur as defined in the EMP. Verify the compliance of proponent with the EMP, to ensure that unpredicted impacts or failed mitigation measures are identified and addressed in a timely fashion.
Limitations of EIA process in India
Ø Formal legislation has been provided for EIA, however it has put the onus of clearing projects on the state government.
Ø Limited involvement of public and government agencies in the initial phases. This often results in poor representation of the issues and impacts in the report, adversely affecting the quality of the report.
Ø Mainly environmental aspects considered and less attention is paid to social or health aspects.
Ø The consideration of alternatives is more or less absent, the government tries to provide clearance because of economic compulsions and lobbying.
Ø Earlier scoping was done by consultant or proponent with an inclination towards meeting pollution control requirements, rather than addressing the full range of potential environmental impacts from a proposed development. However, the new notification has put the onus of scoping on the expert committee based on the information provided by the proponent. Consultation with public is optional and depends on the discretion of the expert committee.
Ø Most reports are in English and not in the local language. In some cases, executive summary is translated into local language.
Ø Lack of trained EIA professionals often leads to the preparation of inadequate and irrelevant EIA reports. The selection criterion for the organisation/professionals is fees/cost rather than the expertise of EIA team.
Ø EIA review is not upto the mark in India. The review agency called Impact Assessment Agency (IAA) lacks inter-disciplinary capacity. No representation of NGO in IAA is provided, which is a violation of the EIA notification.
Ø The poor environmental performance can partially be attributed to a weak EIA process in India, which is diluted further by changes in policy and practices. The EIA is treated more as a means to get EC than as a tool to evaluate the actual impact of the project(s) on the environment and the community.
Ø The March 2017 report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India (CAG) on environmental clearance and post-clearance monitoring delays in carrying out EIA highlights no consideration of cumulative impact in the EIA; non-appointment of a national regulator to oversee the entire process as directed by the Supreme Court; granting clearance without checking for compliance, poor coordination among the ministry, state pollution control boards/Union territory pollution control committees and project proponents; lack of proper mechanism to ensure redressal of public concerns in the final EIA report/EC letter; and implementation of commitments made by the proponent during public consultation in a time-bound manner.
In the latest Environmental Performance Index (EPI), India figured in the bottom five countries. It went
from 141 in 2016 to 177 in 2018 out of 180 countries. Further, Tamil Nadu witnessed protests against the pollution by Sterlite copper plant. All these instances highlight the lack of sensitivity of policy makers towards environmental issues and concerns of local communities which are directly affected by such projects. Any economic development which is not environmentally sustainable is a sure road to disaster.