GS 3 – Environment Impact Assessment

Source: The Hindustan Times dated 11/05/2021

Context : Last week, the environment ministry allowed companies in several industries to expand capacity, based on a self-certification that their operations will not increase the pollution load. This along with several other changes made in the Draft EIA notification 2020 gives rise to several issues.

What is Environmental Impact Assessment(EIA)?
  • 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.
EIA in India – A brief history
The EIA process
Issues with Draft EIA notification 2020
  • Wide discretionary powers to government
    • “Economically sensitive areas” – can be declared by the central government without a public hearing or environmental clearance.
    • “Strategic” tag – can be decided by the Government for any projects for which no information on such projects shall be placed in the public domain.
  • Reduced Public Consultation hearings
    • to a maximum of 40 days, and reduces from 30 to 20 days the time provided for the public to submit their responses during a public hearing for any application seeking environmental clearance.
    • poses a problem to those affected people who are forest dwellers or otherwise do not have access to information and technology and those that are not aware of the process itself.
  • Provisions for post-facto project clearance
    • Projects that have commenced operations – by way of construction, installation, excavation, production, etc – without obtaining necessary clearances can be legalised after payment of a penalty.
    • Violation of Precautionary Principle.
    • Precautionary Principle
      • Environmental harm is often irreparable
      • It is cheaper to avoid damage to the environment than to remedy it.
  • Extended period of clearances
    • Increased validity of the environment clearances for mining projects (50 years versus 30 years currently) and river valley projects (15 years versus 10 years currently)- risk of projects remaining unnoticed for long.
  • Exemptions
    • exempts a long list of projects from public consultation and prior clearance
    • Eg: linear projects such as roads and pipelines in border areas will not require any public hearing
  • Compliance Report Issue
    • Reduces the frequency of compliance reports required from project owners from once every six months to once every year.
Recent Industrial accidents
  • Oil India Limited’s oil wells in the Tinsukia district, Assam – fire in 2020
    • It is situated only a few kilometers away from protected forest.
    • Recent processes for expansion and modification apparently took place without fresh environmental clearance.
  • Gas leak at LG Polymers’ Visakhapatnam plant
    • The plant had been operating without a valid environmental clearance for decades.
Need for a proper EIA – Andaman Water Aerodrome project -A case study
  • Part of the Centre’s Udan scheme (for regional airport development.
  • The EIA report submitted by Andaman and Nicobar Administration does not address the impact on the mangroves due to the project.
  • The EAC found the EIA report inadequate.
Way forward

The Draft EIA notification 2020 may be beneficial in the sense that it consolidates the EIA rules and has the potential of alleviating some ambiguity in the present law.

  • In order to improve ease of doing business, the government should bring down the average delay of 238 days in granting environmental clearance – by easing the process, not by diluting the norms.
  • CAG report in 2017 had criticized delays at every step in projects getting environment clearances (ECs). It said the ministry had not penalized even a single project for violation of EC condition – Hence the government should take up the Supreme Court’s proposal for constituting an autonomous and independent national regulator for appraising projects and enforcing environmental conditions.
  • Adopt the best global practices in environmental safeguards:
    • Sweden –   the applicant has to consult the public even before applying for a new project.
    • Ghana continuous public consultation during the complete process of EIA
    • United Statesallows engagement of public from the scoping stage of the process and continues with the draft EIA report and final decision-making stage.

India’s aim to reach $5 Trillion economy by 2025 and revitalize it after the pandemic shock should not be done by using shortcuts that dilute environmental safeguards. As, Gandhiji once remarked,’ The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.’

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