Environment Impact Assessment in India
Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) is a formal process used to predict the environmental consequences of any development project. Environment Impact Assessment in India is statutory backed by the Environment Protection Act in 1986, which contains various provisions on EIA methodology and process.
Rationale behind EIA
EIA looks into various problems, conflicts and natural resource constraints which may not only affect the viability of a project but also predict if a project might harm to the people, their land, livelihoods and environment. Once these potential harmful impacts are predicted, the EIA process identifies the measures to minimize those impacts. Thus, the objective of the EIA is to:
- Identify the environmental, social and economic impacts of a project prior to taking a decision on its implementation.
- Mitigation of harmful impacts and maximizes the beneficial effects.
Once the assessment is complete, the EIA findings are communicated to all stakeholders viz. developers, investors, regulators, planners, politicians, affected communities etc. On the basis of the conclusion of EIA process, the government can decide if a project should be given environment clearance or not. The developers and investors can also shape the project in such a way that its harms can be mitigated and benefits can be maximized.
The EIA process finds its origin from United States where due to huge public pressure; the government enacted National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970s. The role of EIA process was formally recognized at the Earth Summit in Rio Conference in 1992 in which the Rio declaration stated that EIA shall be taken as national instrument for proposed projects which might adversely impact the environment.
Till 1980s, almost all projects were implemented with little or no environment concerns in India. The Department of Environment came into existence in 1980s. Before that the matters related to environment and forests were within the purview of Department of Science and Technology and Agriculture respectively. The department of environment was upgraded to a full-fledged ministry in 1985. Gradually, the environment clearance to large projects became administrative requirement. In the early 1990s, the MoEF issued guidelines for River Valley Projects requiring EIA process that would study the impacts of submergence zones of such projects on forest, wildlife, water logging potential, impacts on upstream and downstream aquatic ecosystems, water related pathogens and diseases, climate changes and seismicity etc. However, it was 1994 when ministry released official “Environment Impact Assessment Notification 1994”. Criteria were decided to take environment clearance for projects from centre or state level. Around 30 projects were put under Central Government to provide environment Clarence. Such projects included Nuclear Power and related projects, River Valley Projects, Ports, Harbours, Airports, Petroleum refineries, Chemical fertilizers, Pesticides, Bulk drugs and Pharama, Oil Exploration, Synthetic rubber, Asbestos etc.
The EIA Process
In India, there is an elaborate EIA process involving many steps such as Screening, Preliminary Assessment, Scoping, Main EIA including public hearing, appraisal etc.
First of all, the developer has to prepare an EIA report with the help of an environment consultant. On the basis of such report, the EIA may be either comprehensive EIA or Rapid EIA.
- If the EIA report has to incorporate the data of all four seasons of a year, it is called Comprehensive EIA.
- If the EIA report has only one season data, then it’s called Rapid EIA.
We note here that the comprehensive EIA was later on diluted by Environment Ministry and currently, only Rapid EIA is sufficient. Once this report is prepared, it is submitted to the regulatory agency. The agency may then decide if the project may go for formal EIA or not.
Screening is the first and simplest process in project evaluation. It decides if the project needs EIA or not. The government rules categorize projects into two categories, A and B based on the spatial extent of the impacts, effects on human health and the effects on the environment.
- Category A projects are looked into by the Central Government
- Category B Projects go to the State Government.
- Category B projects are further sub divided into Category B1 and Category B2.
- B1 require a public hearing for EIA
- B2 don’t require.
- Category B projects are further sub divided into Category B1 and Category B2.
Screening basically screen outs the projects that don’t require EIA process. But there are several issues with this. Firstly, the projects are excepted from EIA on the basis of value of investments they would be involving. The logic behind this is to keep out the small projects from tangles of the complex process. But, no one has proved that environment impacts are caused only by projects above certain value. There are many small scale industries that contribute to pollution to a great extent, and sometimes at par with large projects. Secondly, even if a project may be eligible for exception from EIA process, they might involve some technical processes which might be harmful to the environment.
The screening would thus clear a project or hold it for further stages. If it is held for next stage, the developer will have to take Preliminary Assessment, which involves sufficient research, review of available data and expert advice in order to identify the key impacts on the project at local environment. This study will predict the extent of the impacts and would briefly evaluate the importance for decision makers.
After the preliminary assessment, the competent authority would review it and would decide if there is a need of comprehensive EIA or Rapid EIA. Then, the developer will have to prepare the EIA report. The competent authority would create an EIA team with independent coordinator and an expert study team. However, it is often seen that members of such teams don’t have experts from social science, anthropology etc.
Scoping is yet another stage before the main EIA process begins. The EIA study team which was organized after preliminary assessment would get engaged into discussions with developers, investors, regulatory agencies, scientific institutions, local people etc. It would study and address all issues of importance and the concerns raised by various groups. Then the team would select the primary impacts for main EIA to focus and determines detailed and comprehensive Terms of Reference (ToR) for the main Environment Impact Assessment (EIA).
The key issue with current scoping method in India is that it generally ignores some important issues which might appear later as conflict.
Once scoping is over, the main EIA begins. Basically, EIA would try to answer the following questions:
- What are the potential results of the project?
- What are the potential changes and extent of those changes? To what extent such changes matter?
- What can be done about these changes? How the decision makers have to be informed of these changes?
Thus, the EIA becomes a cycle of asking questions, and further questions until workable solutions are reached. During this process, the key impacts on environment such as changes in air quality, noise levels, impacts on wild life, impact on biodiversity, impact on local communities, changes in settlement patterns, changes in employment stats, changes in water consumption and availability etc. are formally identified.
The answers of the questions make the so called “prediction” in the EIA process. The prediction scientifically characterises the impacts quantitatively as well as qualitatively. We note here that prediction techniques involve some degree of uncertainty.
Prediction is followed by evaluation. This part evaluates the predicted adverse impacts and determines if they can be significantly mitigated. The next step is mitigation ion which the study team would analyze the wide range of measures for mitigation of adverse impacts. Such measure may include changing the project site, operating methods, raw materials, disposal methods and routes, engineering designs, waste treatment, phased implementation, landscaping, training, social service etc. The compensation for damaged resources, affected persons etc. are also offered here. Overall, the mitigation costs are identified and quantified. This part also involves the Cost benefit analysis of the project in terms of mitigation costs.
Once mitigation measures and costs are identified, the next part is documentation, which is called EIA report. This report has executive summary of the project, a description of the proposed development, major environment issues, impacts on environment, prediction, mitigation measures and options etc. along with gaps and uncertainties in the information; and a summary of the EIA process for general public.
The project developer would now submit 20 copies of the executive summary to SPCB (State Pollution Control Board). It is now responsibility of the SPCB to conduct a public hearing.
The SPCB conducts a public hearing at the site or in its close proximity- district wise for ascertaining concerns of local affected persons. It includes obtaining responses in writing from other concerned persons by posting on website within 7 days of receiving application. in India, Public hearing is not required for the following projects:
- Small scale industrial undertakings located in
- Notified or designed industrial areas/ industrial estates.
- Areas marked for industries under the jurisdiction of industrial development authorities.
- Widening and strengthening of highways
- Mining projects (major minerals) with lease areas upto 25 hectares
- Units located in export processing zones and special economic zones and
- Modernization of existing irrigation projects. MoEF is the nodal agency for environmental clearance.
Once public hearing is over, the project developer will get a NOC from SPCB and submit application to the MoEF secretary to get environmental clearance. In MoEF, the application evaluated by an Impact Assessment Agency (IAA). IAA may consult the experts and again create a team to study the project. It has full right of entry and inspection of the sites or factory premises prior to, during or after the commencement of the project.
IAA team does a technical assessment and gives its recommendations within 90 days. On the basis of this, the MOEF grants the environmental clearance which is valid for a period of five years for commencement of the construction or operation of the project.