Critical Assessment of EIA Process in India

There are several drawbacks with the EIA process in India from screening to environment clearance stages. During the initial stages such as screening, preliminary assessment or scoping, the major issues are ignored which later on appear as conflicts. During prediction phase, there is always lack of reliable primary and secondary data. The data collectors don’t pay attention to the knowledge of the indigenous people. During other phases, there are problems of fraudulent EIA reports, staged public hearings and unscrupulous environmental clearances etc. In fact, today, the entire process of environment clearance has become highly polarized in the country diving all the stakeholders into two sides viz. Government and industry in one side while NGOs and local communities on the other. In recent times, the public opposition to certain projects have become increasingly intense leading to violence and police firing on demonstrators. This is mainly because the EIA process passed too quickly without proper public involvement. The key drawbacks of our EIA system can be summarized in the below points:

  • Deliberate omission of vital information which may alter the fate of projects.
  • False, unreliable and doubtful data; Inadequate single season data in Rapid EIA; Absence of centralized databank
  • EIA is funded by agency whose primary business is to obtain clearance; it cannot be unbiased.
  • No accreditation of EIA consultancy. Many a times, consultancies working on a project have no specialization on concerned subjects.
  • The EIA documents are bulky and technical and make it really difficult to help in decision making.
  • Plagiarism in EIA reports, wherein the same facts used for two different places.
  • False assumption that once site clearance is granted, environment clearance will follow. The developers start construction work such as housing colonies, roads etc. However, in EIA notification, it is mentioned that such works should not be taken before environmental clearance.
  • In some cases, environment clearance is granted despite of public objection. In other cases, staged public hearing is carried out without involving the really affected people.

Policy Options

Independent EIA authority

Earlier, there was a suggestion for creation of an Independent EIA Authority which is not attached to MoEF. This authority should have representatives from communities, civil society groups, sociologists and environmentalists on board. In 2014, the Supreme Court had also directed the government to create such watchdog. However, such watchdog would further add to the multiplicity of monitoring authorities and further complicate the regulatory maze, thereby helping only the unscrupulous elements in the industry and Government.

Sector wise EIA

This suggestion is based on premise that the EIA should be conducted policy-level and sector-wide EIAs in the form of strategic impact assessments ( for various sectors including mining , power and so on).

Creation of IT bank

There is a lack of centralized databank and information dissemination. The MoEF can work towards creation of such a databank and information dissemination desk.

Inclusion of Environment Risk Assessment into EIA

The government should include Environmental Risk Assessment in the EIA process with bringing recognized Safety and Environmental Auditors on board. They should compulsorily meet local populations and submit a detailed report of potential risks due to the project.

Independent Environment Regulator

In January 2014, the Supreme Court had directed the union government to appoint a national regulator with offices in as many states as possible for granting and monitoring environmental clearance to projects. The objective was to deprive the centre /states of their arbitrary power to take decisions on projects and ensure that those found guilty of violations are awarded sizeable penalties under the “polluter pays” principle.

After this direction, the MoEF strongly objected because it would not be feasible for a single authority with limited number of experts to look into the diverse and inter-linked nature of issues involved in the grant of environment clearances to various categories of projects.

Rationale behind such directions

The rationale behind SC direction was clear. The current system of granting clearance by the Ministry has often been politicized with some out-and-out environmentally damaging projects receiving approval only because of the political influence of their promoters. Court had opined that another reason for having a regulatory mechanism in place is to have authentic environment impact assessment (EIA). This is so because under the current mechanism, the EIA clearances rely predominantly on data provided by the project promoter and the absence of verified and reliable data and the lack of mechanisms to validate the data generally lead to subjectivity, inconsistency and inferior quality of EIA reports.

The government objected to this order contending that the new regulator would have conflict of interest with the National Green Tribunal. However, the court rejected this contention saying that the role of a tribunal is to resolve conflicts while a regulator is to be a proactive body in framing statutory rules and regulations.

Question for UPSC Mains:
Critically discuss the drawbacks in India’s Environment Impact Assessment Process. Do you agree with the view that there is a need of an Independent EIA authority in the country? Discuss giving reference to the Supreme Court’s 2015 directions.